Review: ‘Downsizing’ Goes Big with Ideas But Stays Small in Execution

DownsizingAlexander Payne’s 2017 science-fiction picture Downsizing is so cleverly conceived you might forget how poorly made it is.

Undoubtedly, it’s not a horrible movie. In fact, it’s quite watchable, though it drags at certain points and has its share of frustrating moments. The problem is that it should have been better, given the talent behind it and the concepts that inform its being.

Here’s what the movie’s all about (SPOILER ALERT): At some point in the future, after Norwegian scientists discover a way to miniaturize people in an effort to reduce the effects of overpopulation, husband-and-wife team Paul and Audrey Safranek decide to undergo the medical procedure—given the loaded term “downsizing”—that should shrink them to mere inches in height. They do not, however, do this for altruistic purposes; instead, they are following the lead of friends Dave and Carol Johnson (played cheerfully by Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), who sought a better life for themselves in the miniature paradise known as Leisureland, a fantastical, utopian combination of Copenhagen’s Tivoli and Los Angeles gated community that offers residents affordable yet extravagant mansions to live in (money goes further in the tiny world, which is a major selling point of this particular universe), as well as ludicrous amounts of fun in the form of tennis, golf, and endless parties.

Yeah. Can you say, Westworld (1973)? You know something’s gonna go awry, right?

Well, things do … but not in the way we’d think. Payne, whose credits include Sideways (2004) and Nebraska (2013), takes something of an unpredictable route—focusing on the social issues pervading this brave new world rather than any physical mayhem involving things running amok. Phones, despite being minuscule to the point where one would wonder just how small their microchips are, work perfectly in Leisureland and are used to take selfies and can even communicate with “big” people. Cars run and convey folks to wherever they want to go. Yet there are problems, and they start in a petite way. You can’t get chervil to complete your recipe, for example; to solve that problem, Paul uses dill. But he’s obviously chagrined. This community has all the accoutrements of gentility, but underneath it’s a plain, ordinary, elevated bore-town. Dreary family-dining chains Tony Roma’s and The Cheesecake Factory pervade the environment, and when Paul helps newfound friend Ngoc Lan Tran (portrayed by Hong Chau in an expert, Academy Award-worthy performance that provides the film’s needed impetus) bring leftover food from The Olive Garden to needy denizens of this landscape, one has to wonder if the beneficiaries of such largesse would be better off sending it back. Such is the designed teeny-weensy burg of the future. Gourmets be damned. This is suburbia at its most noxious.

Yet Payne doesn’t criticize that. He doesn’t suggest that all this might be a more than a bit antiseptic. And it’s the inoffensiveness of the proceedings that remains one of the biggest issues with the movie. The flick doesn’t take a major stand against, well, much at all. It suggests that people are more likely to take advantage of a scientific discovery for their own purposes rather than the greater good, but there’s no real condemnation here. Capitalism is capitalism. As long as they’re miniaturized and saving the Earth from dealing with a lot more waste, what’s the problem?

DownsizingIn Downsizing’s favor, the picture does showcase what life on the other side is like: the shantytowns and projects on the outskirts of Leisureland that house the people who can’t afford the palaces inside. Here reside the individuals who clean the homes of Leisureland’s owners, and they are primarily depicted in Payne’s sci-fi universe as being Hispanic. As such, the movie presents some dilemmas that it doesn’t resolve: One is in the suggestion that people of Hispanic heritage will be left out of this idyllic new Elysium; and the other is in the representation of Hispanic people themselves—as cleaning women and employees in menial jobs. This is an extremely problematic viewpoint, and it’s not helped by the fact that the character of Tran, a Vietnamese dissident who has been forcibly downsized by her government and has a prosthetic leg owing to injuries sustained in her escape to the United States, utters dialogue that initially appears to be straight out of an offensive caricature, à la Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The good news is that Chau’s acting is so brilliant that it transcends the issues surrounding the conception of her fictitious linguistic abilities; she has scenes that are so moving that they almost belong in another movie. The bad news: WTF? In its attempt to be socially conscious and evenhanded to all races, creeds, religions, and genders, the flick still perpetuates stereotypes. It really could have avoided this mistake, which is a major fault.

Quality assurance, folks. This is an example of why every industry needs someone to review stuff before it goes out.

Every industry also needs someone to edit content, and in the case of Downsizing, this is a big concern. Exposition runs rampant, especially at the beginning, and toward the end of the picture’s running time, one may be a little exhausted. Then there’s the problem of character development, which is particularly egregious in the manifestation of Paul’s bizarre neighbor, Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz in a way that straddles the line between eccentricity and all-out scenery-chewing. Sadly, the scenes featuring Dusan—who is involved in some sort of dubious importation activity and has a creepy, gregarious mien that seems vaguely threatening—are not as funny as they should be. We never get the sense that he or his right-hand man Konrad, a peculiar older gentleman with a background as a sea captain who is portrayed by Udo Kier, has anything important to do with the proceedings other than transport themselves, Paul, and Tran to Norway to visit the original downsized community spawned by the now-despondent scientist Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), one of the originators of this process.

With Asbjørnsen concerned about the destruction of the human species owing to methane emanating from melting ice in Antarctica, a decision is made to retreat underground for 8,000 years until the proverbial smoke clears … and Paul, despite being engaged in a relationship with Tran following his divorce from Audrey, wants to join the New Agey, bongo-drum-beating inhabitants of this purported new Eden because he finally wants to make a difference. This change in his personality, as well as his ultimate decision to stick with Tran to help other people in the dying world because the journey to the center of the Earth is much too long, is not credible. Indeed, it’s kind of a cop-out. And for a picture that seeks to address serious climate issues in the mold of, say, Silent Running (1972) or Soylent Green (1973), this is inexcusable. You don’t just drop the ball on us, Mr. Payne. You don’t just pull your punches like that.

downsizingThat Payne doesn’t take a critical perspective with regard to the near-messianic attitudes of the scientist embarking on such a venture offers discomfort as well, but this is a minor complaint in light of the other bugs in the movie—especially the matters relating to logistics and the Star Trek-esque science of it all. Are you trying to tell me that rain-induced droplets of water won’t automatically flood Leisureland, or that no wandering critter would accidentally step on one of the pint-size inhabitants of that fjord-set village in Norway? How about the process of downsizing itself, whereby naked, fully shaven folks get injected with some kind of serum and locked in a room that features a stick-man figure on a console gradually decreasing in height to show the procedure being completed?

It’s science, everybody! Well, Hollywood science. And it’s not like it hasn’t been done before—we’ve seen such silliness in Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Innerspace (1987), as well as in Help! (1965) during Paul McCartney’s escapades on the floor. Frankly, the world of literature has been full of depictions of inch-or-so-tall people practically since day one, with Jonathan Swift’s Liliputians in Gulliver’s Travels being among the most famous. So it’s not as if Payne’s idea is entirely original. The context may well be. But the derivation surely isn’t.

I’d like to think that the ambition of Downsizing makes up for its limitations, but on the whole, the picture just resembles more of an admirable failure than anything else. Yes, it’s viewable. Yes, there are inspired scenes. But the entirety doesn’t click, and that’s a shame. Given the subject matter and treatment, it will be a wonder if this film makes back what it cost to produce (the Internet Movie Database lists its estimated budget at $68 million), and there were few people in the theater I saw it in the other day. Maybe 10 years from now we’ll see it as something better and take a different tack. At this juncture, however, it’s not what it should’ve been, which makes for disappointing cinema viewing. We do need more thoughtful sci-fi pictures out there, but I’ll tell you: Through the walls of the theater, I heard the sounds of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) playing in another section, and I knew where I would’ve rather been.

Perhaps that’s the biggest takeaway from Downsizing of all. If that’s true, things are looking pretty small from up here.

Simon Hardy Butler is a writer and editor living in New York City. He has written for publications ranging from Zagat to Adweek and operates a restaurant-focused blog called Critical Mousse (criticalmousse.com) that showcases his opinions on the culinary arena. He also blogs about anti-Semitism for the Times of Israel. His views and opinions are his own.

3 thoughts on “Review: ‘Downsizing’ Goes Big with Ideas But Stays Small in Execution

  1. I felt a lot of what you describe here, Simon. I haven’t really thought about it enough to offer much criticism beyond being mildly disappointed, but I did walk out of the theater thinking Alexander Payne was the wrong director for this particular story. The Payne movies that work for me either operate as caustically funny satire or as genuinely sad realism. This wasn’t funny enough to qualify as Election, nor was it real enough to qualify as Nebraska.

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