Lots of people are in pain, Ma. In all sorts of ways.
It’s an ingenious comedic premise. With Earth’s population untenable, a couple of Norwegian scientists discover a way to combat our impending doom: genetic shrinkage. With a syringe of blue formula and a microwave oven (the logistics are never explained beyond surface visuals), any biologic entity can be miniaturized to a fraction of its size and mass. Since over-population is a main component of global warming, food shortages, and poverty, this solution is a timely miracle. Add the fact that any product used after the procedure is also a fraction of its usual size (clothing, food, and resources), your dollar suddenly goes a long way—a ratio of $150,000 dollars to $15 million to be exact. So why not take the plunge, gain new experiences, and “save the planet”?
If you’ve seen the trailer for Alexander Payne and longtime writing partner Jim Taylor‘s Downsizing with the Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” blaring you know the potential. Middle class nobodies living in luxurious mansions without a care in the world? Anything can happen. Watch the second trailer with an added plot point of Paul Safranek’s (Matt Damon) wife (Kristen Wiig‘s Audrey) getting cold feet and even more possibilities for hijinks become available. Throw in a kooky neighbor like Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and this recently divorced bachelor is poised to take “Leisureland” by storm. Or at least that’s what Paramount wants us to think. They want us to go in believing we’re in for a lowbrow treat of high-concept high-life because the reality is much more sobering.
That two-hour and fifteen minute run-time isn’t a joke as Downsizing proves to be a heavy drama dealing with faith, ego, and extinction. And that’s fine if it wasn’t so preachy. This isn’t a revelation since the first hour is literally predicated on the notion that mankind needs to make a drastic change to survive, so no one should be surprised when Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) starts talking at Paul (rather than with) about how horribly we treated this beautiful gift we were given. But it didn’t have to be so overtly heavy-handed, especially towards the end considering Payne and Taylor continue making crass jokes as though they didn’t very clearly pivot to a tone wholly unreceptive to that sort of humor. It feels like two movies.
The front half’s light romp with dramatic coloring is really quite charming. Paul’s drawn as an endearing everyman “nice guy” who puts his own happiness on the backburner for those in his orbit. He gave up medical school to care for his ailing mother. His career as an occupational therapist is to make the lives of Omaha Steaks employees better and pain-free. And the idea to “downsize” is itself motivated in large part to what he perceives to be a yearning for change on behalf of his wife. It’s therefore funny to see him bend over backwards for others. It’s hilarious to watch him blow-up upon learning Audrey didn’t go through with the procedure. And you can’t help laughing when easy-going Dusan calls him out on it all.
Just like in The Matrix, however, a pill is taken at a wild party and everything shifts as a result. That truth that we all know about people like Paul comes out. He isn’t altruistic. He isn’t so happy that he wants to bestow that happiness onto others. No, he’s as pathetic as Dusan candidly states. Paul wallows in self-pity to the point of letting himself be kind as a means to earn affection. His actions aren’t about helping those in need; they’re about being liked (or at the very least not hated). Everything he does is for selfish gain and he’s so deluded that he starts to believe fate drives him rather than narcissism. But we see what’s happening. We see how he resents every single moment.
Funny, right? I’d never say the first half moves at a fast clip (it doesn’t), but it does progress in a breezy sort of way. It makes good on the comedy so that we can laugh at the characters, the satire, and the underlining futility such an instantaneous evolution into wealth hides. So the abrupt shift into dramatic severity that the back half delivers hits you like a ton of bricks. One second we’re having a good time in this universe devoid suffering and the next we’re exposed to the “downsized” slums that would of course pop up. By the time Paul enters “Leisureland,” Asbjørnsen’s revolutionary science has been active for fifteen years. Any utopia would fracture in less than one once the necessity for cleaning jobs manifested.
We’re whisked away to paradise’s “dirty little secret,” a harsh yet honest existence (as introduced by the wonderful Hong Chau‘s Ngoc Lan Tran) that guarantees we will hate Paul. He’s finally lain bare and his reaction is to double down on every horrible attribute he possesses. In comes the blatant depiction of humanity’s drive for excess and penchant for dismissing those beneath that ambition. The ways in which certain factions of this new world use others arrives with clarity and the vices, flaws, and deplorable characteristics that have put the old world on the brink of annihilation are reborn. This is our destiny: to self-destruct as a byproduct of our own hubris. But this isn’t a revelation. Payne doesn’t expose this underbelly. He merely force-feeds it to us.
It’s an excruciating experience to behold. Without any nuance—without thinly veiling the commentary in comedy—Payne simply pontificates. He’s ostensibly talking down to us, dismantling his own satire as though he lost confidence in our ability to decipher what was truly going on. And it only gets worse once we’re made to endure Lassgård’s lamentations and speeches through Damon’s gaping awe. Every obvious word out of the former’s mouth is met with a reaction shot from the latter of nodding head and revelatory smirk. And then his Paul is faced with yet another difficult choice identical to the one he already made concerning “downsizing” itself. Has he learned something to change his answer? Will the motivations for his selection be more pure? Do we care?
I didn’t. I worried that the plot wouldn’t go anywhere during that first hour, but at least I was having fun. Once it’s proven the plot is going to its logically generic conclusion, I realized the fun had stopped. The jokes started to fall flat and my investment in Paul as a “hero” disappeared. Thankfully Waltz and Udo Kier spice things up with their self-aware egos and Chau injects some much-needed heart despite it only being used to manipulate Paul’s actions. She may single-handedly make the film a must-see for her performance alone. It’s just a shame Payne and Taylor waste both their premise and her emotional artistry on such a clichéd adventure towards naïvely noble motives. Being rich has nothing to do with your bank account. Duh.
 Kristen Wiig plays Audrey Safranek, Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, Maribeth Monroe plays Carol Johnson and Jason Sudeikis plays Dave Johnson in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.