For many, the announcement of a new Alexander Payne film is music to the ears. The American filmmaker has graced cinema with such modern masterpieces as Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska; films that thoughtfully deal with the issues of failing to achieve a sense of patriarchal control. This is true of his latest effort, Downsizing, but rather than thinking small, Payne’s consideration for humanity has reached global-scale as he takes his big ideas to the world of the small.
Payne’s latest environmentally and politically conscious sci-fi drama is about being sold the lie of the American dream; facing this, and deciding to wake up. Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) find themselves strapped for cash and warming to the idea of a medical procedure known as downsizing. Friend of the family Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) assures them they can “live like kings” if they shrink themselves and live in Leisureland, a micro-paradise in which their money will multiply into millions. However, upon embarking on this journey, Paul is left alone, depressed and five-inches tall. Paul’s lonely pessimistic attitude forces him to become aware of the inequalities of this fabricated and false world of the wealthy, and decides that there is nothing left for him to do but help.
Payne’s latest project is incredibly ambitious, and in all honesty, a little too ambitious. It’s an incredibly imaginative piece of work, one that is very well communicated visually, but its commentary spans so many topical issues that it fails to give any of them the focus and attention they deserve. At its very heart, the film is about love, and the things that threaten to overshadow its importance – Downsizing works better when this idea is foregrounded. It also comments on current political issues effectively, and the use of a physical wall to illustrate extreme class divide feels directly inspired by the fears of a nation. Arguably, the film only begins when Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) enters the frame, a cleaner who lost her leg after protesting the safety of her village, only to be downsized against her will and forced to care for the rich. Her story helps demonstrate that, big or small, the face of human cruelty remains the same, and it is this revelation that gives the narrative direction and purpose.
Chau is absolutely phenomenal in the role, and gives Damon an emotional counterpart to work with. The scenes between them are tender and quietly romantic; a welcome addition to a narrative that prior to Chau’s emergence, had no sense of urgency. It is in the last act, however, when its environmentally vigilant agenda steals the film from possessing anymore moments of beautiful human connection. The scenes feel robbed of comedic potential and in desperate need of Payne’s trademark deadpan wit. Payne is the master of balancing the tragic with the comic, always knowing when to lace drama with a potent dash of warm humour. Yet, the film is painfully short on comedy, which would have really complimented Payne’s satirical comment on the state of American society.
Downsizing asks a lot of important questions, and is unfortunately consumed by the demands that such questions create. Themes of global warming hysteria detract from the political allegory of nightmarish migrant exploitation, and the conflicts of the two leave the film feeling liking a failed lecture; a product of a man who has so much to say but without the patience to say any of it with the grace he is capable of. This is clearly a film important to Payne, and some of the scenes truly capture a considerate passion on behalf of the filmmaker and the cast. However, for such an intriguing premise, it’s not as fun as it should be even before it takes its political route, and when it does, it’s not quite focused enough. Perhaps after this, Alexander Payne can downsize his scope and do what he does best, and has been doing for decades.