Downsizing (2018) (Review)

There's nothing quite as cinematically crushing as watching a film that begins on such promising footing crash and burn as spectacularly as Matt Damon's Downsizing. A quirky premise and an amusing first act give way to a film that tries to be so much that it winds up saying very little; its narrative misdirection amplifies its racist undertones magnified by an offensive performance and complete mishandling.

In the near future, two scientist discover a method to combat the world's growing overpopulation: an irreversible process known as 'downsizing', that involves shrinking humans to a height of five inches to reduce waste and alleviate environmental pressures. Paul and Audrey Safranek (Damon and Kristen Wiig) realise that many of their financial woes would be eased by downsizing, seeing an increase in the value of their money and benefits that extend far beyond the environmental positives touted by the project's investors. They decide to Downsize, but is life five inches tall as rosy as they believed?

Let's change up the structure of my typical reviews and travel with the film like a running commentary, shall we?

Downsizing's eccentricities seep through in a comedic, compelling and frequently entertaining opening act; one that sells its central premise well with audiences poised to lap it up. A world where you can (irreversibly) shrink to just a fraction of your size but leave many of your friends and family behind? Genius. From some genuinely thought-provoking moments (an ill-health lady questioning why scientists are focusing on making people small but resistant in helping her actually breathe) to a well-crafted montage that demonstrates the downsizing process, all of which is peppered with brilliant cameos from the likes of Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and Niecy Nash. It is fantastic, well-flourished filmmaking in these opening forty minutes or so, with a sharp balance of humour and society cross-examination, building a world that immediately feels developed and elaborate.

Soon Paul learns that his wife Audrey has bailed on him (this isn't a spoiler, you've seen it plastered over the trailers) and he is left stranded in this new, little, scary world alone. The goodwill continues somewhat as Paul acclimatises to his new life, with some decent set pieces and production design enforcing the forced Utopian imagery of Leisureland, incorporated throughout the first fifteen minutes in this new land. Many of the supporting performances here are neat additions, from the overly-friendly tourist guides to an uncomfortable date, well-rendered and supporting the film's vision.

And then, the proverbial sh*t hits the fan and Downsizing heads crashing down the pan.

It's pretty clear to see where Downsizing begins to head off the rails: a party scene, and the introduction of the otherwise fine but horribly-drawn Dušan Mirković, played by Christopher Waltz. It begins to feel scattershot and unfocused, like it's trying to say something without finding the profound or the remotely interesting. A pecking order is introduced but the film doesn't bother to explore it beyond some ropey, forced stereotypes and ideas. At this stage, it's still salvageable, hinting at some ideas it simply needs to find the focus and courage to explore.

And then Hong Chau is introduced as Ngoc Lan Tran, with what may stand as the most offensively-stereotypical and lazily-defined character we've seen on our screens in quite some time. A Vietnamese political activist and disabled immigrant, Chau's character is turned into not only a horrible plot device, but an insulting character designed only to make the audience laugh - not with her, more so at her. It's utterly degrading and leaves a horribly bitter taste that soils the entire film.

And it's not just this one character alone that sends Downsizing off the rails so drastically. It's completely directionless by the time it enters the second half, meandering and sauntering its way to a half-baked finale as demoralising and subdued as possible, an utter contrast to the unique and entertaining opening stretch. Compounded by the unneeded, energy-sapping 135 minute runtime, the two halves couldn't be further apart - figuratively and literally - in terms of quality and achievement.

It's rather transparent on who is to blame for the misfire that is Downsizing: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor completely botch the script, taking a conceptually-fascinating idea and sending the whole thing up in a blaze of bad choices, questionable decisions and downright offensive stereotypes and character-sketching. That a film can become so flawed and irretrievable after such a promising start is a real blow and almost every issues boils down to the ghastly script.

Directorially, this is supposedly the first major misfire in Payne's career. He certainly injects some creativity into the visuals and the set pieces are sturdy enough, all bolstered by Rolfe Kent's fine, quirky soundtrack that operates particularly well in enhancing the humour of the piece. Matt Damon is fine but his character arc is so thin and there's nothing at all memorable about his character; Kristen Wiig is unfortunately sidetracked as the film moves into Leisureland. It becomes murky for Hong Chau, who was once in contention for an Oscar nomination; I can't see past what a terrible and offensive character this is and while her performance is fairly decent at least, I'm blinded by how poorly-intentioned the writers were with her. Waltz is fine, intentionally slimy, if pointless; the story would probably operate better without him.

For a film about small people, Downsizing is a colossal disaster. It descends into an utter mess and my chuckles turned into eye-rolls at an alarming rate, as Downsizing transitioned from a barmy comedy with thought-provoking themes into a directionless hash, a major misfire that leaves behind a horrible taste. It so disastrously crashes and burns at the hands of a dreadful screenplay that it passes up on one of the most intriguing and fascinating concepts to (almost) grace our cinema screens.


Summary: Downsizing shrinks from a conceptually-fascinating idea into an utter disaster in front of our very eyes; it is a film as offensive as it is overlong, degenerative and directionless, the very definition of wasted potential. Big ideas but so little success.