Written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne
In 2017, Alexander Payne had his first official box office bomb. Four years prior, he’d received fairly rave reviews from critics for Nebraska, and before that, The Descendants had also been similarly received. In a decision that can be read as an attempt to expand his creative sphere by making a satirical science fiction film. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor hammered out the details during the director’s hiatus from filmmaking between 2004 and 2011. The film was released on December 22 and proceeded to gross $55 million against a $76 million budget. I only bring up those numbers as that’s mostly how you see Downsizing spoken about. It did not make money therefore it is a failure. Because the film was so poorly thought out, it was a failure. It was the third of Paramount’s bombs that year alongside Mother! and Suburbicon, all high-concept films that feature lousy writing.
The pending threat of global climate collapse has led Norwegian scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen to research miniaturization to decrease man’s destructive footprint on the planet. He succeeds, and a commune is formed of tiny people to test the feasibility of doing this across the globe. Ten years later, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is living in a world where people he knows are giving up their regular-sized lives to be shrunk down and live in protected cities where their dollars are transformed into a fortune due to consuming fewer resources. He convinces his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to go through the procedure but it doesn’t play out how Paul would expect. Once settled in the city of Land’s End, Paul befriends his neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political refugee working as a cleaning woman, all while trying to find his place in this strange new world.
Something happened to Alexander Payne in that seven-year gap between films. He and Sandra Oh got divorced. I can’t speak to how much this affected Payne personally, but I strongly sense it influenced him as a filmmaker. In The Descendants, Nebraska, and Downsizing, there is a recurring theme of male characters being plagued by some harridan. Women went from being one of the best parts of a Payne movie to being these shrill, horrible people. In Downsizing, we have Tran, who is introduced in a television segment about Vietnamese political prisoners who hid in a television box to escape to the States. We come to learn that governments and corporations around the world have abused the shrinking technology. But, of course, the United States isn’t…the most fantastical aspect of the movie.
Tran becomes Paul’s way into seeing the flipside of the utopian project he’s become a part of. She lives on the other side of a wall where small tenements have been built to house all the service workers, cleaners, gardeners, etc., that Land’s End would need. My first question about this scene is predicated on the fact that Paul has been living in this place for two years before he sees ‘the other side.’ Who the hell did he think was cleaning up the mansions in this world? Who did he think was making food and busing tables at the restaurants? If anything, this reveal makes Paul look like a giant asshole, another oblivious American never deigning to imagine that his luxuries may have come at a cost. The film doesn’t play it this way, instead framing Paul as a poor naive man.
This is the problem with Downsizing. It has such a solid concept to explore and then does nothing interesting. Paul is never judged by the movie even though everything feels like it’s being set up to be a satire about how oblivious the average American is to how much harm they heap on other people and places. Nope, Payne plays it from the angle that Paul is a genuine soul in search of meaning, so all the other characters serve the purpose of helping him realize who he is. So Tran becomes an exposition device to explain how some people are being exploited, then love interest, and finally, her status feels unsure. The last time the character impacts the story is sitting in a car and honking a horn for Paul to hurry up. She never has agency and just serves Paul’s character arc.
The plot structure of Downsizing is very loose, but I think it could have worked. However, certain things felt undercooked and simply dropped from the plot. For example, Kristen Wiig was sold in the marketing as being a co-star with Damon but she’s gone a third of the way into the film. Eventually, you figure out the story is meant to be about Paul’s process of self-realization in the face of potential extinction, and that doesn’t work. This is mainly because Paul is not a compelling character; there are seeds of something more interesting, but the script never explores that. Instead, the story becomes a high-concept sitcom with a level of humor that reflects that shallowness.
Payne has always walked that line with his movies, teetering close to absurd sitcom conventions but also finding some way out of it. Downsizing succumbs to that, reaching such a stupidly simplistic and ridiculous level of storytelling that pulls you right out of it. The experience I think most people will have watching this picture is drowsiness. It’s not even bad enough to keep an audience engaged. Payne behaves as if he’s unsure of what he wants the movie to be, and that’s reflected in the dense clod that is Paul, a character with seemingly no solid motivations or desires; he’s just existing. Once again, you can write a character that behaves like this, but you must use other elements to comment on it. Payne does not do this.
Payne’s next feature is planned to be released sometime in 2023. He’ll be reuniting with Paul Giamatti for The Holdovers. Will this movie marks the beginning of the third period for Payne? We’ll see, but the 2010s were not a great decade for the director. While the technical craft has improved, the quality of writing has declined. I want to see that sharp wit of the early films paired with high concepts like we see in Downsizing. I have my fingers crossed for Payne; I hope he pulls it off.