Downsizing (Alexander Payne, 2017) 1½ out of 4 stars.
One of the many curious aspects of Downsizing, the new film from Alexander Payne (Nebraska), is how a story about stripping ourselves of excess expands to include an overwhelming multitude of narrative threads. Never content to follow one through line for too long, Payne – who co-wrote the screenplay with longtime collaborator Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) – flits from idea to idea and tone to tone, creating an extremely odd amalgam that never quite gels into a cohesive (or even coherent) whole. If cinematic smorgasbord is your thing, then this could be the movie for you. If not, then look elsewhere for a more balanced meal.
Would that the team had paid attention to their first scene, where less is celebrated as more. We start in Norway, where a team of scientists has discovered a method to shrink humans to a fraction of their body mass and size. Cut to five years later, and a pioneering group of volunteers has started a colony in that same country, with one enterprising couple even so bold as to have birthed a tiny (like, really tiny) baby. Cut to ten years later (these early moments move quickly), and just like that, the trend to become small (an irreversible process) is catching. Why? Well, you know, save the planet and all (which I am for, by the way), since 5-inch humans consume less (and their savings go further when they require less of everything). A crazy premise, I know, but not without its appeal.
Along the way, we meet sad-sack Paul (Matt Damon, Jason Bourne) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig, Ghostbusters), who decide to take the plunge after failing to qualify for the mortgage on their dream home. In “Leisureland” – one of the many new settlements for the tiny – they can live the life they’ve always dreamed of. But Audrey – plot spoiler alert (revealed in the trailer, anyway) – gets cold feet, leaving Paul alone and feeling metaphorically, as well as literally, small. So far, so good. Strange, for sure, but I was willing to go with it.
And then we lose the story. Many good actors show up, including Christoph Waltz (Spectre) and Hong Chau (Inherent Vice), among others, each one adding a new twist to what we thought was our focus, diffusing the plot ever more. I appreciated the narrative risk-taking; I just wish it worked. Is this a social satire, a movie about economic injustice, a call-to-action in the battle for climate initiatives, or a romantic comedy? It’s all of them, and somehow none of them, since no effort is made to meaningfully combine the various parts. In addition, the film’s use of its poor characters as props is not so mildly irritating (and inexcusable). On top of all that, Damon delivers a listless performance that helps nothing and no one. I usually love Payne, but his bloated Downsizing (all 135 minutes of it) needs trimming all around.