Writer/director Alexander Payne has been known to make small, character-driven films that deal with the intricacies of human relationships. So, when it came out that he was heading up a high-concept film about humans in the near future who decide to shrink themselves, it seemed like an odd choice for him.
True to form, though, Downsizing is not really about being shrunk, but pointing out that human foibles remain the same no matter what size you are. Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist who’s living an unremarkable life with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). When a new technology comes along that allows people to safely — but irreversibly — be shrunk down to 5 inches tall, they are intrigued.
The inventor of the process claims the development will both conserve natural resources and lessen the impact of humans on the environment. For those who choose to be downsized, however, it also has the pleasant effect of making their money suddenly worth a lot more than in the big-person world.
No matter what the commercials may make you think, Downsizing is far from an adult version of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Once Paul and Audrey decide to undergo the process, there’s a short period of time in which sight gags show how small people have become compared to life-sized things. Payne and longtime co-writer Jim Taylor soon turn their focus to what the changes mean for everybody living in that world.
Thanks to interactions with a neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz); a Vietnamese refugee, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau); and others, Paul starts seeing the world in a whole new way. His basic human decency gets put to the test on multiple occasions, especially when he sees that, even in the small world, there is a distinct difference between the haves and have-nots.
There seem to have been a multitude of different ways the film could have gone, as big-name actors like Neil Patrick Harris, James Van Der Beek, and Margo Martindale all make blink-or-you’ll-miss-them appearances. The way Payne and Taylor go is definitely thought provoking, though it’s unclear if they needed the high concept to get their point across.
Damon is one of the few actors who can credibly go from being an action star in the Bourne movies to playing a schlub like he does here. The mild-mannered, weak-kneed man is a favorite character type of Payne, and Damon plays it well. It doesn’t make for an overly engrossing experience, but you can’t say he doesn’t pull it off.
If Downsizing had been a normal studio comedy, it probably would have been better but less interesting. But in trying to make a commentary on the world at large through miniature people, Payne comes up short of his usual excellence.