The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
Most of us, at least once in our lifetimes, will get high, sleep deprived, and/or feverish and come up with an outlandish “what if?” theory that we will be convinced is absolute genius. Then most of us sober up, have a nap, and/or otherwise recover, realizing that our wonderful vision was only really good for some half-baked conversation before we move on with our lives.
Instead, director and screenwriter Alexander Payne got his idea funded and assembled a star-saturated cast to realize it. And now we have Downsizing, a film that somewhat ironically takes a flimsy premise (“What if we had the power to shrink human beings to a fraction of their size to lessen our impact on the environment? Or something?”) and attempts to blow it up into an epic meditation on personal and global concerns.
Payne, a wildly talented but frustratingly inconsistent filmmaker, offers another effort that leans toward the latter with this story about the ways in which individuals and societies adapt to a scientific breakthrough that allows humans to shrink themselves and live in miniature, largely self-sufficient and sustainable communities with a carbon footprint even tinier than their residents. The concept itself is at least mildly inspired, and perhaps could have been better explored by an artist with at least some background in science fiction or fantasy, but the execution in Downsizing quickly removes the hope of any intriguing developments. The world building is weak to the point of verging on nonexistent. Plenty of conversations about the prospects of this potentially game-changing development are bandied about in earnest chats with friends and belligerent arguments in bars, but the film never really digs too much deeper.
After watching the news about the development on TV, for example, small town American everyman Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, who between this and Suburbicon is becoming 2017’s favored avatar for white filmmakers who just figured out that racism and inequality exist) rushes home to tell his mother. If they can spend all of that time and energy on this kind of stuff, she wonders with exhaustion, why can’t they cure her fibromyalgia? From there, the narrative quickly jumps years ahead, abandoning this character and her question as distant memories. This is how ideas are introduced to Downsizing: haphazardly tossed into the mix, explicitly stated and possibly debated for a line or two, but never explored through action or subtext, and then dropped for the next one. Throw in a large number of images that place tiny people next to normal-sized objects, and you get the point.
The proceedings don’t dig much deeper when Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who are aimless and struggling in their average-sized lives, decide to undergo the procedure and move to a small community. As things go awry, Paul is sent on a personal journey leading viewers to begin to suspect that maybe downsizing oneself doesn’t downsize one’s problems. Then he stumbles into another journey of more global proportions, and viewers are also led to the conclusion that things like racism, inequality, and the existential quandary of what to do if/when humanity faces extinction aren’t that easy to shrink, either. It should be a lot – maybe even too much – to cram into one film, but the execution is so threadbare that its 135 minute runtime feels unnecessary, bordering on indulgent.
The performances are uniformly solid, at least. Damon delivers his affable average American persona well. Hong Chau is funny and heartbreaking as Ngoc Lan Tran, an activist who later crosses paths with Paul, and is funny and heartbreaking and deserves so much more than to serve as a glorified catalyst for Paul’s awakening. Christoph Waltz gleefully gorges himself on the scenery as downsized playboy Dusan, and watching him gorge himself on the scenery is almost as fun as the clear pleasure he took in playing the role. Udo Kier does an admirable job of keeping up as his sidekick. The ongoing parade of A-list stars who drop in for cameos is almost uniformly amusing, particularly when Laura Dern shows up for a gloriously cheesy minute.
Unless you have never truly stopped to consider yourself and your place in the world, though, there’s nothing about Downsizing that stands out as particularly groundbreaking, thought-provoking, or even capable of making you go “hmmmm.” It’s an extremely basic meditation on humanity, dressed up with sight gags (so many sight gags) and a collection of artists with quite the pedigree on both sides of the camera. No amount of ambition and talent can elevate this trifle of a lightly-explored premise into a film that is truly entertaining or meaningful. Payne’s heart might have been in the right place with this one, but the execution feels flippant at best.
Measuring Downsizing’s vision against its impact is sort of like one of the film’s sight gags. It wants to be a towering, larger-than-life household object, like a cracker or a rose. But it’s best represented by the tiny human that’s struggling to carry it.