Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is a good man with kind intentions and ability, but he simply can’t reach his potential. One could say the same thing about Alexander Payne’s movie that houses Paul’s story, Downsizing.
Paul has the makings to be a doctor, but he settled on being a safety expert in a meat factory. He pushed aside his dreams in order to take care of his mother, and kept them stored permanently in order to provide for his wife (Kristen Wiig). Now, his wife wants a bigger home, and when the new wave of technology includes shrinking yourself to live in a controlled environment like a rich person, Paul takes the plunge. Let’s just say things don’t work out for Paul initially, but he keeps trying to make things right.
Downsizing suffers from a strong opening that simply doesn’t know how to progress. Payne’s ambitious premise is set up quite well in the invigorating first half of this film, showing us Paul’s sad state and the brave new world he is entering. When he lands in Leisureland and sees old friends like Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis playing to his usual baffoon strengths) while meeting new ones like Dusan (Christoph Waltz, who gives the film much needed life), Paul is still an unhappy lug.
This tactic has worked well for Payne in the past, showing us a painfully unhappy man and turning him inside out, for better or worse. Downsizing is the third film in Payne’s “Sad Existential Man” series, following Election and Sideways. Unlike Matthew Broderick’ and Paul Giamatti’s characters, Paul just isn’t that interesting to care about what happens to him.
When a passionate yet rebellious woman (played by the delightful Hong Chau) flips Paul’s world on its head and the plot moves into new uncomfortable waters, the film loses its focus and the tone shifts. This didn’t happen with Payne’s previous films. You knew what those stories were trying to accomplish and go for; Downsizing gives you no real idea where it wants to go, but when it does finds its way, you’ve already checked out.
In its troublesome second half and tirelessly busy finale, Downsizing turns a left turn into something that had little to do with the setup-and it’s not a welcome transition. What appeared to be different and interesting becomes sluggish and overbearing. When Paul and his new friends are faced with environmental issues, the film gets heavy suddenly, losing the comedic balance that was established early on.
I get it to an extent. This is Payne going for something bigger, trying to extend a message about our current state of mind. I just didn’t care for the execution and the promise that was lost in the process. The film was something else in the last 30 minutes, and it lost me.
The acting is good in parts and just paycheck at the bank worthy in others. Damon can blend star power and acting talent quite well, but he’s going through the motions here. I won’t say the man is devoid of emotion or reading from cue cards, but like this season’s Suburbicon, his performance doesn’t elevate the film.
Waltz is a delight, bringing a blunt harshness to Dusan’s manner of speaking, giving the character a truth that the rest of the film searches for endlessly. Chau is a bright new face in cinema and musters a decent performance out of an underdeveloped role. Wiig and Sudekis are basically Wiig and Sudekis, which adds little to the plot. The rest of the performances aren’t notable enough to mention, but there are some odd cameos from well known actors.
Downsizing had an intriguing setup, but the shift in tone of the film during the final 45 minutes of the film just wipes away all the interest I had in the film. When Payne decided to squeeze an environmental protest into his sly quirky little film about finding your place in the world, the movie lost its potency.
Instead of handing over 12 dollars to watch this in theaters, I’d go rent Election and Sideways instead. It’s a cheaper-and all around better-option this holiday season.