Alexander Payne’s SF film has a clever premise but runs out of gas midway through
DOWNSIZING (Alexander Payne). 135 minutes. Opens December 25. Rating: NNN
After a string of modestly scaled character studies – About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska – Alexander Payne swings for the fences with this satirical sci-fi comedy. It’s risky and ambitious, and a commendable effort. It just doesn’t get all the way home.
Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play a struggling Omaha couple who decide to take advantage of a revolutionary process that shrinks people to about 5 inches tall, the better to live like royalty on private estates while conserving resources. And almost immediately, that plan goes sideways.
The midsection of Downsizing is something quite wonderful, as Damon’s well-meaning Paul navigates his way through a New Mexico community of “smalls” while deep in a mid-life crisis. The miniaturization gimmick is simply accepted the smartest thing Payne does is shoot everything normally, letting the characters’ reduced proportions peek through every now and then. And as Paul’s social circle grows to include a few new faces – most importantly the wonderful Christoph Waltz as a decadent upstairs neighbour and Hong Chau as a Vietnamese refugee who works as a housecleaner – his tiny world expands as well.
But once Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have established their characters, Downsizing hits a speed bump, turning first into a fairly flat allegory for the American dream and then into a different sort of story entirely, leaving America behind for something stranger and darker. Paul is viewed as a white saviour, which is kind of awkward – Damon did this in Elysium, and it didn’t work out well for anyone – and then a spectator, which mirrors the audience’s position in the final movement.
At two and a quarter hours, you can feel the parts starting to wear down, as though Payne and Taylor kept writing, convinced they’d eventually figure out an ending. What they settled on feels awfully, well, small.
Paramount’s pushing hard for some awards love, but major categories seem unlikely. Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s original screenplay could score a nomination (they won one back in 2005 for Sideways), and dark-horse slots for art direction and costume design shouldn’t be counted out.
This is part of NOW’s Holiday Movie Preview. See more here.