TIFF 2017: Downsizing Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, James Van Der Beek
Published Sep 11, 2017Beloved voice actor and comedian H. Jon Benjamin had a short-lived, absurdist sketch show called Jon Benjamin Has a Van in 2011. Drenched in irony, the comedy was a precursor to Nathan for You and indulged in the stupidest premises. One episode, entitled "Little Little Italy," saw Benjamin visit a miniature borough where he fell in love with the tiny inhabitants. Delightfully dumb, it was a joke so bad that it became good again. And yet the episode still had more pathos, logic and narrative structure than Alexander Payne's latest film, Downsizing.
The prestigious dramedy writer and director behind Sideways, About Schmidt and The Descendants has turned in a bloated disaster of a film complete with tangential loose threads, stilted performances and an absurdly long runtime. All of this for a film that's essentially a new take on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids!
The film starts with a Norwegian scientist discovering the secret to shrinking human beings. It's an earth-shattering disruption, as the world embraces the new technology, colonizing tiny villages and embracing their new, teeny lives. Tired of struggling with their middle class existence, Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to embark on being shrunk and start anew in a pocket-sized mansion.
Things don't go according to plan, either in the film or about it; from there, Downsizing takes all kinds of meandering plot turns and alternates tone frequently, squishing too many ideas together as though multiple movies were cross-bred in a magical shrinking machine. At times, it feels like it might be a pointed critique of worker exploitation, consumerism, colonization and the ways that all those things damage the environment. But the message is a mess, and the film's platitudes are delivered clumsily.
Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident, is the film's only interesting character, but despite her backstory and Chau's scene-stealing performance, her accent is still exploited for cheap laughs, including an incredibly painful scene about whether a lovemaking session was a "hate fuck" or a "love fuck."
Some have compared Downsizing to Defending Your Life, and it's true that the film does occasionally feel like the hollowed-out shell of an Albert Brooks vehicle. The difference is that Brooks would've hit a film like this out of the park with sharp social commentary and actual jokes, while Payne seems content to just let the story sit in indigestible chunks before moving on to some wacky new idea. Its 135 minutes resemble a collection of loosely related shorts, all of which feel too long.
With its bad premise and worse execution, Downsizing imagines what would happen if present-day Adam Sandler tried to inject some Al Gore environmentalism into one of his Netflix atrocities — and that film would probably have had at least a few more laughs.