Alexander Payne may not make very many movies (only seven in 21 years), but when he does they’re always among the more talked about. As a writer/director he has managed to successfully capture the everyman spirit and make us feel as though we’ve simply been dropped into people’s ordinary lives for a few hours; it’s only afterward that we realize the profundity of it all.
And it’s worked. His first six films each enjoy a Rotten Tomatoes rating of at least 80% (usually much higher), and his screenplay for 2004’s Sideways and for 2011’s The Descendants won the Oscar.
Which brings us to the end of 2017—and to Payne’s divisive seventh film, currently hovering at around 50% on Rotten Tomatoes.
It’s certainly easy to see why. A sci-fi satire about overpopulation, the economy, and the survival of humanity, Downsizing starts out as a quirky comedy, veers into the land of social commentary for a while, and then finally lands at an almost Melancholia-like place. If you walk into it expecting what the trailer promises, you will be sorely disappointed, if not outright irate.
But wait, there’s hope.
The premise is interesting enough. Scientists have discovered a way to shrink humans down to a height of five inches. It’s first couched as a way to help the environment and reduce overcrowding, but the financial ramifications resonate more with prospective shrink-ees—a dollar in the normal world is worth around a thousand in LeisureLand, the downsized cluster of neighborhoods that take up only a few acres outside Santa Fe.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are having trouble making ends meet in a humdrum life, and discovering that their friend Dave (Jason Sudeikis) has downsized sets the wheels in motion for themselves, too.
But the shrunk life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And just as we’re introduced to Dusan (Christoph Waltz), an aggravating, super-rich, party-boy neighbor, Dave’s character is completely dropped. Then we meet Ngoc Lan Tran (a phenomenal Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident from the downsized tenements outside LeisureWorld, who completely throws the movie into an entirely different direction.
It’s enough to make your head spin, certainly, and that may be the most mild side effect, but there’s some salvation in just letting the movie take you wherever it goes. Heading into Downsizing with a preconceived notion is the worst thing to do, whether you’re expecting a goofy comedy, a divisive social treatise, or a meandering drama. And it really is all of those things.
On the production side, Downsizing is simply dazzling. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and visual effects supervisor James E. Price give the film an honest-to-goodness sense that all this could really be happening. And that realism is exacerbated by Payne’s direction, particularly in small, throw-away moments that other filmmakers might have ignored, as when the downsizing nurses are laughing with each other in the hall, or in a brief scene with Niecy Nash as a LeisureLand salesperson.
Downsizing swerves and detours so often you may find yourself frustrated a-plenty, but, as with Payne’s previous works, it’ll get the little grey cells working. It’s by no means his best, but in the end, it both entertains and marvels as a subtly hilarious win.