Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz
Director: Alexander Payne
Running Time: 135 mins
Downsizing is an American film about a man who decides to follow a new trend sweeping the globe by shrinking himself to five inches tall, allowing him to live in a miniature paradise free of the problems of the big world.
This is such a strange film, and one that’s really hard to form an overall opinion on. On the one hand, Downsizing is a fiercely original and unique comedy-drama, complete with strong performances in general and some both powerful and utterly enthralling moments. On the other hand, it’s occasionally an overlong, inconsistent and often even very preachy movie that just doesn’t manage to mix all of its brilliant ideas together and make one fully coherent film.
There’s a lot to talk about here, so I think I’ll start off with the one thing that’s most consistent through the whole film: the performances. In the lead role, Matt Damon is great as the everyman who finds himself taking such an enormous decision to enter the land of the small. It’s the sort of role that he fits really well, as not only does he pull off the likable character of the ordinary man, but he manages to make that character’s deeper and more dramatic moments all the more powerful, in the way that anyone a bit more ordinary just wouldn’t be able to.
The cast also includes a whole load of A-listers. Kristen Wiig is good as Damon’s wife, Christoph Waltz is pretty entertaining as his noisy neighbour (save for a slightly off-putting accent), but the real stand-out here is Hong Chau, who shines in the best performance of the whole film.
Although only being introduced to the movie about halfway through, Chau’s appearance in the movie completely changes things, and turns it from a quirky comedy-drama into something so much more heartfelt. Her role as a former Vietnamese refugee now working as a cleaner in the small world is one that opens the story up for so much more depth and drama, however it’s the fact that Chau is just so lovely and pleasant throughout, playing her character with real heart, that makes her stand out so much. She’s fantastically funny, very active and often outplays Matt Damon in most of the pair’s time on screen together, offering up one of the most magnetic and endlessly entertaining performances you’ll see all year.
Now I think it’s time that we look at the story, where the film enters real hit-or-miss territory. The entire premise of the movie is fantastic, and the overarching idea behind the whole downsizing trend, centring on people being able to use their current resources and money to live in greater wealth in the smaller world, makes it a surprisingly convincing and often even appealing concept.
That’s in effect the purpose of the first half of the movie, as we watch Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig’s characters wrestle with the idea of downsizing themselves to get out of all their money troubles. In part, that’s interesting, but the first half really does drag on for too long as a simply quirky comedy-drama surrounding the idea of downsizing. While the comedy is good throughout, as are the performances, there’s not enough to the story in that first half beyond showing you how wonderful life as a small person could be, and I was really starting to tire of just watching that, hoping for something a bit more impressive.
Fortunately, that arrives in the form of Hong Chau’s appearance. When her character comes into play, the film completely changes from just a quirky premise into something that’s still hilarious, but now far more interesting and meaty. The relationship between Chau and Damon is delightful to watch throughout, and the way in which Alexander Payne manages to insert his textbook political satire is fantastic, offering up an intriguing and moving look into how the world can’t really be perfect, and centring on the theme of poverty and inequality.
I won’t reveal too much, because it’s really impressive to see that part of the story unfold, and it will definitely have you fully gripped for the best part of 40 minutes as the two characters find themselves in a completely new role in the land of the small.
Then the story takes another turn as we shift from Payne’s portrayal of poverty, to a significantly more environmental theme. Unfortunately, this is where the film began to lose me a little again, as the story’s environmental overtones and ideas just aren’t as well-founded as the ones about poverty earlier on. While it tries to make a strong point about climate change, it doesn’t do so convicingly enough, instead relying on the quirky and obscure events of the final act to make its points, which just isn’t as interesting.
While the film fortunately retains its sense of humour, and Payne’s political satire remains fairly strong, the final act rather unfortunately feels like a preachy call to arms rather than an objective and riveting insight into an important issue, and when that’s intertwined with what becomes an even more bizarre story in the final act, it’s nowhere near as easy to enjoy the movie as before.
On the whole, Downsizing is really a very strange film. There are moments about it that I hated, and felt dragged on for far too long at the expense of either entertaining or interesting storytelling, but there are also moments about it that I found really impressive. Its incredibly original story is something to behold, while the brilliant performances (particularly from Hong Chau and Matt Damon), strong comedy and genuinely moving middle portion all come together to make a film that’s far from perfect, but is so different that I won’t be forgetting it in a long while, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.7.