Alexander Payne has always been a director given small budgets, focusing on personal stories that comment on a larger aspect of the human or American life. His previous works include Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and most recently Nebraska in 2013. The indie director, however, has finally been given a big budget in order to make one of his dream projects: Downsizing.
Downsizing is a sort of sci-fi story with an indie spin. In this film’s world Norwegian scientists have found a way to miniaturize people in order to avert the problem of overpopulation. Obviously America commercializes the idea, and we thus focus on Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) who think downsizing (reducing themselves to a mere 8 inches) will rid them of their economic problems since their money is worth more when they’re small making many Americans who miniaturize live in utopias.
The film is incredibly fun with impeccable pacing in its first 40 minutes, as we’re introduced into the new small world. Paul is framed as a nice average American and that leads to relatability for much of the target audience for this film. However, the film then takes a sudden turn as the character of Ngoc played by the wonderful Hong Chau introduces the poor community that do the menial jobs of cleaning and cooking for the rich in these small utopias. It’s at this point that the film turns into a socio-economic, immigration, and climate change analysis, which might put most viewers off as they had been sold on something else. This certainly messes up the pacing in the film, and it takes some time for the audience to adjust, especially as a complete new rack of characters is introduced out of nowhere.
Something that Payne’s movies always balance on is a certain restraint of emotion. Most of Payne’s characters show emotion in fleeting portions of the film, the rest of the time it’s kept pent up. It’s important for Payne to get good actors that can hang on his balance, and he’s largely been successful with his previous films; in Downsizing he gets a great cast (Christoph Waltz and Jason Sudeikis pop in), but it’s Chau who proves to be the emotional anchor of the story by playing a largely strong and resilient character for most of the latter half of the film. It’s her amazing performance that helps keep the second and social commentary half of the film humanized and chugging along.
In the end I was very pleased with Downsizing, but because I was lucky enough that the two halves of the film appealed to me, from the quirky sci-fi in the beginning to the more political undertones of the second; the two pieces might not fit with everybody, and that may be why the film, unfairly, got such a poor reception at the box office (made $9 million in its first weekend out of a nearly $70 million budget), blame the marketing guys.