Movie Beat: Matt Damon one disappointment among many in Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing”


by Jenniffer Wardell

Rated R for language (including sexual references) graphic nudity and some drug use

Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

Directed by Alexander Payne

Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Rolf Lassgard and more

Grade: One half star

 

It’s better to start a movie with a bad idea than to start with a good one you completely fail to do anything with.

Sadly, Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” falls firmly into that latter category. There are at least 10 or 15 really interesting plots you could build out of the idea of people shrinking themselves, and Payne uses exactly none of them. What we get instead is a movie that feels like it was duct taped together from three separate films, only one of which was very good.

In the movie, an invention that allows people to permanently shrink themselves to the size of a dollhouse doll. It starts out as a way to conserve resources, but it quickly ends up being a way for people of limited means to buy their way into tiny luxury. Matt Damon and his wife Kristen Wiig (yes, they both have character names, but the movie doesn’t make you care enough to bother remembering them) decide they want to shrink down into the lap of luxury. Being small, however, isn’t as easy as they realize.

Though the trailers try to sell the movie as a charming comedy/consumerist satire, that only really covers the first third of the movie. After that, all hint of charm or sci fi is replaced by a limp “suddenly single man reclaims his life” story, which after far too long deadends in an equally limp pre-apocalyptic romance. If I wanted to watch a boring man have a midlife crises and jump into bed with the first woman who reminded him he was human, I would at least want one that was better written.

I assume Payne thought he was taking audiences on a journey, but there’s almost no connection between the three sections. The narrative simply ends and begins again, the tonal shifts so distinct and separated you almost expect to see credits roll between them.

The movie also wastes so many opportunities to visually play with its tiny characters. Though there are a few moments that emphasize the difference between the miniature people and the rest of the world – a tiny nurse brings out a giant pack of crackers, dandelions arc gracefully overhead like trees – the movie mostly seems to forget there’s a size difference at all. It’s possible the CGI budget couldn’t handle more than that, but if you’re making a movie about tiny people I would say this is a necessary place to put funds.

Sadly, most of the money probably went to Matt Damon, but that was a mistake. His character is so determinedly mild and dull that he’s the least interesting thing onscreen at any point (including, sometimes, the scenery). Kristen Wiig is utterly wasted in a role that could have been successfully played by a lamp, and Christoph Waltz chews the scenery in a way he has a dozen times before.

The only spark of genuine interest on screen comes thanks to Hong Chau, playing a Vietnamese dissident who was shrunk against her will. The actress valiantly tries to bring some nuance to the movie, but Payne’s handling of the character has enough racist overtones to hamstring her efforts.

In the end, audiences are left with a sense of the same kind of crushing waste the movie supposedly decries. There are so many ways “Downsizing” could have been a good movie. Sadly, it manages to avoid all of them.

(Photo courtesy of Paramount)

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