As I mentioned in my review of SUBURBICON a few weeks ago, 2017 was not a great year for Matt Damon. All of his films bombed at the box office. (Okay, THOR: RAGNAROK did well but Matt only has a cameo appearance in that one.) His third dud of the year, DOWNSIZING, has finally arrived here but it’s not as bad as what you may have heard.
In DOWNSIZING, Damon plays Paul Safranek, a good-natured occupational therapist who lives along with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig, GHOSTBUSTERS (2016) and the upcoming American remake of TONI ERDMANN), in the same house he grew up in in Omaha. Like many middle class Americans these days, they struggle with being able to move up the class chain. Paul and Audrey’s lives start to change though, when they run into an old classmate of Paul’s at his high school reunion. Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis, COLOSSAL; RACE) and his wife are part of a new movement of people who have opted to be shrunk down (“downsized”) to five inches. Based on Norwegian technology, downsized communities are sprouting up all over the world, allowing tiny people to live large because money goes much further when you’re that tiny. Paul sees the environmental benefits of being small but Dave tells him that downsizing has nothing to do with the environment. It’s all about finally being able to live the life you’ve only ever dreamed of. Paul and Audrey are intrigued and they go to the community’s sales office to check it out. They like what they see and make the decision to liquidate all their possessions, but when Audrey backs out at the last moment (it’s in the trailer so it’s not a spoiler), Paul is forced to navigate this brave new world on his own.
Up to this point, DOWNSIZING has to potential to be a good movie but director and co-writer, Alexander Payne (NEBRASKA; THE DESCENDANTS; SIDEWAYS), decides instead to take the audience on a very bumpy road that leads over a cliff where we fall into an abyss of mixed messages. The “class” angle is still played as we see the now-divorced Paul moving from his palatial house to a drab apartment, dating equally drab single moms, and working in a customer service call centre. (He let his occupational therapist’s license lapse since becoming small so he can’t even do that anymore.) But where’s the satire in that? When Paul meets his upstairs neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz, THE LEGEND OF TARZAN; SPECTRE), a high-living, Serbian opportunist businessman, we think that Paul will finally snap out of his funk but it’s not Dusan who does that. It’s Dusan’s cleaner, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, TV’s BIG LITTLE LIES), a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will, who performs that task. Lan introduces Paul to the underside of life in the tiny community. It seems that not everyone who gets shrunk down gets to enjoy la dolce vita. The message of “no matter what size you are, your problems remain the same size” is a good one but Payne chooses not explore it further. Instead, he shifts focus again and the film now deals with environmentalism before finally turning back to social inequality.
Like SUBURBICON, this failure has less to do with anything Damon did than with the script he was given. This one just can’t decide what it wants to say. All the performances are good, including that of Golden Globe nominee Hong Chau, herself the child of Vietnamese boat people so her Pidgin English accent is well-grounded, but DOWNSIZING is certainly not on the same level as Payne’s other works. That’s too bad because it could have been something a lot bigger than what it was.
I wouldn’t recommend you running out to the cinema to see this film. It’s not worth it. Wait for it to come to Netflix or wherever. Also, don’t be surprised when you don’t see some of the scenes from the trailer in the final cut of the film. Gone is the scene with people drinking from the giant bottle of Absolut vodka. Instead we see Paul and the others tow a boatful of bottles of clear liquid up a fjord with no explanation of what it is. Similarly, Audrey’s job of selling shoes is cut. In the final cut, we don’t know if she works.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, January 25th at 8:30 am HK time!
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