While no one would ever say that Alexander Payne is lacking ambition, he has not made a giant film filled with show stopping set pieces or had a plot that could be described as “high concept.” Until Downsizing that is, a feature which has both, but feels scattered all over the place. There’s plenty to grasp onto and attempt to enjoy, even as the film may actively be attempting to hold the audience at arm’s length. One thing is for sure, it’s a film likely to start many discussions, just not all necessarily in a positive light.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, charming but aloof) is just an average guy. With a little more work he may have become a great doctor, or had a life that amounted to something. When his mother got sick 2 years into his residency, he put his life on pause, forgetting to reset things when she passed. Stuck as occupational therapist at Omaha Steak Company, he longs to give his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a better life. Then, as luck should have it, opportunity comes calling at his high school reunion.
His old buddy, Dave (Jason Sudeikis) has undergone the act of “downsizing”, which sees an individual shrunk down to a few inches tall. The initial idea behind the process is that by making people smaller they would consume less, thereby helping the environment and giving earth a longer lifespan. Dave though informs Paul that “getting small” is more about “saving yourself” than what the scientists would have you believe, a bit of hokum the movie unfortunately starts to wallow in, rather aggressively, as time goes on.
That in and of itself leads to a bigger distraction Downsizing is never able to plant a steady foot into: the tone. So, much is larger than life or semi-satirical that it starts to feel more like Idiocracy, than a film directed by Payne. What social commentary there is about consumerism or people adopting quickly to new trends without thinking, is just surface level. Whatseems to bother Payne, as the 3rd act take a questionably dark turn (debatable even), is more of an environmental quandary. Shifts in focus like this occur 4 to 5 different times, causing unease, or at least easy disconnect. Considering the ambitiousness of the project, it can be forgiven, at least on principle, but there’s never a clear cut point where it can recover.