Ever since the 74th Venice Film Festival I’ve waited to see for myself what “Downsizing” was all about. A science fiction comedy that serves as a dramatic parody of sorts of dystopian concepts, “Downsizing” is ironically a much smaller movie than I expected, but that doesn’t make it unwatchable. Containing charm and focusing on a few pretty heavy themes “Downsizing” has a lot to say, but how well does it really say it? Here is my review.
“Downsizing” stars Matt Damon as Paul Safranek who, along with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), signs up to be downsized, a procedure that shrinks applicants to around five inches tall in order to reduce the impact of humanity on the environment. After Audrey chickens out on the procedure Paul is left alone in a luxury colony of downsized people to live his life. After divorce and settlements leave him in worse shape in his new life than his old one Paul connects with Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tan (Hong Chau), who was shrunk against her will, and undergoes a life-changing self reflection where he attempts to come to piece with his purpose in a world that has left him behind.
To say the least “Downsizing” is a very original idea that was a welcome breath of fresh air for me specifically considering how Hollywood tends to lean more heavily on remakes, reboots, sequels and franchises these days. Usually concepts like this are reserved for more artistic films, but “Downsizing” isn’t quite artistic as much as it is entertaining. The story balances deep themes with comedy and semi-serious drama to create an interesting, if uneven viewing experience. That being said, I have to admit it wasn’t quite the quality picture I expected.
I’ll start with the performances, which are by far the best part of the film. Ironically enough despite Matt Damon being the star of the show he’s actually upstaged by nearly every other major player in this story. Damon does a respectable job portraying Paul Safranek, but in all honesty this is not his strongest performance in my opinion. Instead the highlight role for me was Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran. Chau, who by the way does have a very American accent in real life, perfectly adapts to the Vietnamese accent to portray a refugee who was downsized by force and years later lives in the poor outskirts of the luxury society where Paul now calls home. Tran proves to be the teacher to Paul Safranek, opening his eyes to the meanings of life beyond materialism and more egotistic callings. Chau recently received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance and it is well deserved. Chau not only fully embraces her character’s nationality but upstages pretty much everyone in the film with one of the most committed performances by an actress in all of 2017.
Other strong performances are turned in by the likes of Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis and others, but the irony is the big stars of the show, Damon and Kristen Wiig, are probably the most underwhelming performers in this project. Both try to inject some humor and levity into the film while also serving as the source of much of the film’s deeper realizations, but neither are really as effective as they could be. I worded that statement very specifically because both do manage to turn in respectable performances, but they could have been so much better. Granted Wiig only appears in the first third of the film, but again Damon’s turn in this movie just needed something more for me to completely enjoy it. Maybe it was the quality work of the actors around him, but overall I just found the star of the entire movie to be the least memorable performance at the end of it all.
Something I truly loved about “Downsizing” was the set pieces and atmosphere are just amazing. An important part of the story is the people being shrunk they inhabit a small version of society and the sets used for this lavish world are incredibly and meticulously designed. Whether it’s due to either visual tricks or set construction every building, home and street looks truly tiny in the downsized world. Even without comparison to any real-world counterparts when you see the different places within the shrunk world you truly get a good feel for the size of this society. It’s hard to explain really, but despite the smaller world still being a pretty big area on its own everything within it still looks and feels like a miniaturized version of our reality. It was amazing for me as a viewer to experience how this movie plays with perception so effectively. It’s that kind of stylistic filmmaking that helps bring a project to a new level and director and co-writer Alexander Payne deserves credit for creating such a believable and detailed world.
For me the problem with “Downsizing” lies in its uneven tone really. As I said the story tries to combine serious themes with moments of levity and many times it works, but when it doesn’t it falls flat on its face. Despite the filmmakers’ attempts to balance powerful themes with stylish filmmaking and comedic storytelling the movie never seems to find a good middle ground. It’s either hard to laugh at it, or it’s hard to take it seriously which makes an otherwise quality movie feel off and at times a bit awkward. It doesn’t dampen the overall experience entirely, but it’s enough to keep this from being anywhere near perfect. It just feels a bit messy and disjointed.
The saving grace of “Downsizing” is that despite all its flaws it succeeds is saying exactly what it was made to say. As a film bent on social commentary “Downsizing” succeeds for the most part. The most obvious theme in the film is how something that seems so perfect isn’t always what it seems. Matt Damon’s Paul decides to downsize but circumstances put him in a position where life doesn’t really get better for him and his decision haunts him even a year later. The premise of this movie is that life is better in the downsized world, but society still has its slums. Money is still a struggle if you didn’t have any to begin with. Essentially society is no better off for downsizing, but everyone misses the point that downsizing was invented to help save the world, tying into the movie’s other major theme about environmental awareness, which I’ll touch on in a minute. When Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran he is given the chance to open his eyes to the possibilities of life outside of his one-track mind and that opens the story up to become a truly powerful examination of where life’s true values lie. The moral: a life changing moment that seemed like a curse turns into a blessing with time, but only because Paul was willing to change his perspective.
As I stated the other major theme is environmentalism, which actually plays a big part in the creation of the downsizing process in the first place. This is where the film tends to be a slight parody of dystopian films, challenging whether or not those on the more liberal side of the argument are in the right either. As the story unfolds we see that global warming has become a true threat and downsizing was invented to inspire humanity to try and fix that problem. This concept held true throughout, however “Downsizing” thankfully avoided being preachy and turned global warming into more of a catalyst for its titular discovery. The filmmakers combined the global warming problem with the other big theme of self-worth and what makes life truly valuable to help audiences understand that extremism on either side of the battle or a failure to resolve the smaller issues of humanity while obsessing over the larger ones doesn’t exactly help the world in the long run despite the best of intentions. While the movie overall may stumble in its execution, in the end these morals allow “Downsizing” to remain an important cinematic experience and a story that succeeds in being significant without being overbearing.
I’m not going to call “Downsizing” a bad film. It’s not. It has a good moral core, a very original concept, great set pieces, incredible design, and a series of top-notch performances led by the promising newcomer Hong Chau. However there are enough issues with the final product where I don’t feel comfortable calling it anywhere near the best film of 2017. Damon’s performance left some things to be desired and the film stumbles as it juggles different tones in an attempt to spread serious themes with comedic flavor. Overall it was a very good movie, but it wasn’t the mind-blowing movie I had expected.