Downsizing (2017)

  • Time: 135 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama | Sci-Fi
  • Director: Alexander Payne
  • Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau


“Downsizing” follows a kindly occupational therapist who undergoes a new procedure to be shrunken to four inches tall so that he and his wife can help save the planet and afford a nice lifestyle at the same time.


  • What if, in the not-so-distant future, Norwegian scientists had discovered a way to address the oncoming ecological and economic effects of overpopulation? What if instead of focusing on the dwindling supplies, they figured out how to decrease the consumers by literally reducing them in size? That’s the premise of director Alexander Payne’s Capra-esque satirical flight of fancy, Downsizing.

    Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is an ordinary Joe, the kind of guy who takes care of everyone to the point of obliterating his own personal dreams. An occupational therapist who still lives in his childhood home and has just paid off his student debts, he’s married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), whose aspirations for moving into a bigger and better home far outweigh their finances. At a school reunion, always a fertile ground for re-evaluating paths not taken and picking at the scabs of insecurity, they run into old friends Dave and Carol (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), who have undergone the miniaturisation process and rave about life in Leisureland, one of the many planned communities for those who have gone small. Paul and Audrey are further intrigued during a tour of Leisureland when Lilliputian sales reps Jeff and Laura (Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) show off the economic advantages of being small – not only do the small get to afford their dream houses, they can buy a whole set of diamond jewellery for a mere $83, which is equivalent to their food budget for two months. Plus, going small helps save the planet! What’s not to love?

    Now completely persuaded, especially after learning that their total worth of $152,000 translates into $12.5M in Leisureland, Paul and Audrey make the decision to undergo the irreversible miniaturisation process, which Payne obviously delights in depicting. Strongly referencing the visual aesthetics of THX 1138, the sequence follows Paul and the others as they’re prepped for the procedure – hair is completely removed as are teeth; otherwise people’s heads would explode. The process takes less than a minute before the nurses come and lift the patients from their beds with steel spatulas and wheel them into the recovery room. Once Paul awakens, he realises that things didn’t work out exactly quite as expected.

    Once in Leisureland, the narrative expands to include Paul’s upstairs neighbour, Dusan Mirkovic, a cigar-chomping party boy played with rascally relish by Christoph Waltz, as well as Dusan’s cleaning lady Ngoc Lan, a Vietnamese dissident who was shrunk down against her will. Ngoc Lan is brought to vivid life by Hong Chau, who provides Downsizing with its most resonant comic and emotional beats. Spending time with the hilariously no-nonsense Ngoc Lan exposes Paul to the same social, racial and economic disparities that existed in the world he left behind.

    Downsizing is a superb, big-hearted and humane offering from Payne that often veers into the most unexpected corners. Technically flawless and emotionally rich, it offers keen insight not only into ingrained societal behaviours but also into the human condition. It’s the nature of men to want to survive, to long for and work towards a better life, and to squander the gifts that they have been given, but the underlying message in Payne and Jim Taylor’s pitch-perfect screenplay is reminiscent to the one in Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life: stop diminishing yourself by thinking of what could be, but rather see and appreciate what already is.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆½ out of 5 stars)

    GRADE: C


    IN BRIEF: A sharp satire that quickly go off track at the midpoint and never recovers.

    SYNOPSIS: A man becomes small and see all the big problems in the world.

    RUNNING TIME: 2 hrs., 15 mins.

    JIM’S REVIEW: Alexander Payne’s satirical sci-fi comedy, Downsizing, is a major disappointment from such a talented director. It is a film big on issues and small on ideas.

    After a promising start that spoofs America’s obsession with fads, corporate corruption, and personal greed, the film takes a surprising u-turn and veers into preachy ecological territory, losing its comic edge and becoming a overwrought parable about self discovery.

    Matt Damon plays Paul, an Everyman looking for the best in all possible worlds and the actor is well-suited for this role. This modern day Candide thinks he has found a utopian world in Leisureland, a Disneyland paradise that miniaturizes people and transports them to a world of wealth and pleasure. At least, that is the message worth believing to these elite few.

    The premise for this pre-fabricated gated community for the under 5 inch community has many comic opportunities in contrasting our big vs. small universes and much of that goal is incorporated in the film’s first half. But then the tone of the film sifts dramatically and gets more serious about poverty, class warfare, environmental issues, and immigration. It is at this midway point that the film loses all of its sense of humor and slogs its way to an absurd finish.

    The scattered screenplay by the director and co-writer Jim Taylor goes wildly off track. The plot becomes convoluted and exasperating, in need or major rewrites. Characters are introduced and lost midway with less interesting ones added. One such role, , an annoying Vietnamese housekeeper is well played by Hong Chau, who makes this part far more appealing than it deserves. The actress steals the movie cold and makes this poorly written stereotypical harpy role memorable with her acting choices. However, one never believes any attraction or chemistry between her and Mr. Damon, who suddenly goes from idealistic hero to helpless doofus for no real reason. Fine actors such as Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudakis, and Kristen Wiig are wasted in smaller or ill-conceived parts. Other characters played by Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and Margo Martindale who become cameos in need of more screen time.

    Visually, the CGI is mostly effectively done, but the props and production design have a problem with size proportioning that is glaringly off and inconsistent when it should be more accurate to make the film concept resonate.

    Mr. Payne may have let his ego and oversized imagination get the best of him. In the case of Downsizing, this usually strong director loses his focus and his vision, entirely missing the big picture. Let’s hope he will grow from his small missteps like this wonky film.

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  • “Tiny People, Big Mess”.
    Rating = 4/10

    From the trailer this film looked quirky, funny and interesting and has been on my “looking forward to” list for many months. Oh dear, what a let down.

    Matt Damon (“The Martian”, “The Great Wall”, “Jason Bourne”) and Kristen Wiig (“mother!”, “Ghostbusters”) play Paul and Audrey Safranek. Paul is a laid-back and hardworking  occupational therapist; Audrey has materialistic ambitions over and above their available finances. The two decide to “downsize” making use of a revolutionary Norwegian invention that reduces humans, and most other lifeforms, to a fraction of their normal size. This offers huge wealth to the normal American, since the cost of living in downsized form within the mini-estate called LeisureLand is tiny in comparison to “big folks”. But all does not go well in the transition (unlike the trailer, no spoilers here) and Paul needs to find a new purpose in life as bigger problems loom.

    It’s clearly written to be a social satire, and there are some clever angles to be explored here:  everyone publicly positions their downsizing based on ‘environmental issues’ and ‘saving the planet’, but most everyone’s real reason is the lifestyle benefits. Also lightly touched on, but never deeply explored, are the impacts that the downsizing initiative is having on the broader American economy and property markets, with the ‘big people’ questioning why small people should have the same rights and votes as them. 

    But the film never really gets into the meat of any of this. Worse than that, the movie never settles on what it is trying to be. I think we can write off “Sci-Fi” pretty early on. But is it a drama? A comedy? A love story? A socialist rant? An environmental cri de coeur? The film jumbles all these aspects together and treats each so halfheartedly that none of them get properly addressed.

    Not only are the audience confused: none of the actors seem to be too sure why they’re there either. Damon – never Mr Personality – should have been able to develop some chemistry with the feisty and dynamic Ms Wiig, but even these early scenes plod along with you thinking “what a dull film”. Things perk up slightly at the LeisureLand sales fair, where Neil Patrick Harris (“Gone Girl”) and a naked Laura Dern (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”) glibly try to sell a luxury doll’s house to the assembled crowd. American consumerism in miniature.

    But post-downsizing the film crashes back to ‘Dullesville Arizona’ again, but with added depression, requiring Christophe Waltz (“Django Unchanined”, “Spectre”), as a dodgy Serbian entrepreneur Dusan Mirkovic, to over-act manically to try to add any sort of energy into the film (which he is only mildly successful at doing). There’s a rather bizarre supporting role from Udo Kier – looking for all the world like Terence Stamp – as Mirkovic’s ship-owning pal, and an almost cameo performance from Jason Sudeikis (“Colossal”). 

    Enter stage-left Thai-born Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese cleaner. There’s a clever angle here: where “average American Joes” like Safranek can live like kings, but the poor still have to scrape by, living in ‘skyscraper Portacabins’, as the menial classes: there’s no escaping class structures, even when 5 inches tall. Chau sums up the uneven nature of the film, as she mostly plays her lines for laughs but then (in a spectacularly good bit of acting in the midst of, I have to say, some pretty poor hamming) bursts into uncontrollable tears.

    Just when you think things are going to limp to a unmemorable close, the film ups and leaves LeisureLand to add a completely bizarre final act. (It’s pretty unusual in the UK for people to walk out of a cinema mid-film, but a couple did so at this point). This segment bears no relationship to the downsizing theme whatsoever, since all the players at this point could be full-sized. Aside from an amusing “50 shades of f**k” speech from Ngoc Lan Tran and a “massive explosion”, this story goes nowhere, says nothing (at least not to me) and merely irritates. Throw in a completely anti-climatic non-ending and I genuinely shared a “WTF look” with the stranger sat next to me!

    This is all very strange, since this comes from Alexander Payne, who also directed and co-wrote “The Descendants”, one of the most impressive films of the decade. Jim Taylor co-writes (as he has co-written numerous other films with Payne). 

    I note that in this morning’s London Times that their film critic, Kevin Maher – someone who’s views I am generally pretty well aligned with – gave it 4 *’s out of 5. I can only assume that he either saw a completely different cut of the film, or he is a lot cleverer than I am and understood amazing sub-texts that completely passed me by! Maybe… but I have a sneaking suspicion that the general viewing public will more share my opinion on this than his.

    I was tempted to give this just one * as it was such a disappointment to me, but the underlying concept is a good one: it is just one that has, in my humble opinion, been implemented in a bizarrely slipshod manner.  

    Definitely not recommended. Go and see “Coco” instead! 

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