Movie review: Downsizing

Even the laughs are smaller in a film about miniature people

Directed by Alexander Payne
With Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Udo Kier

The idea of shrinking characters has been around for a long time. That Downsizing manages to make such a bland and lifeless comedy with the time-tested concept in itself is an accomplishment.

One main problem is that the film tries to make serious points about global warming, slave labour, refugees, consumerism and cults while making fun of those topics at the same time. The other problem is the jokes are too obvious and not really funny.

The basic premise is a scientist discovers how to miniaturize humans, plants and animals, and sees it as a way to save the planet by drastically reducing waste and greenhouse gases. People can be reduced to about 5 inches (about 13 centimetres).

Colonies start to be developed where people live in what are essentially fancy dollhouses and ride around in toy cars.

For the people who become small, their life savings go a lot further. The houses are cheap so almost anyone can have a mansion. Food costs are minimal, as a few crumbs are now a whole meal.

Several films have already explored the same idea. Including various versions of Alice in Wonderland as well as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, which looked at fantasy aspects. The idea was taken seriously in Fantastic Voyage, with tiny scientists in a submarine in the human body. It was done for comedy in Honey I Shrunk the Kids. All these films realized that comedy or suspense is generated by creating a contrast between the big and small worlds.

The makers of Downsizing miss out on almost all the opportunities for humor. Once Paul Safranek (played by Matt Damon) becomes small and moves to a housing development for small people, everything is the same as in the big world. There is no contrast as everyone and everything is small.

This was the same mistake the Western film called The Terror of Tiny Town made, using small people on Shetland ponies on a scaled down set. It looked like just another Western, and not a good one.

There are a few slight differences in Downsizing’s tiny suburban development, but not enough to really be noticed. The tiny cars, buses, appliances, phones and other items look almost exactly like their big counterparts.

The film becomes a typical suburban comedy, but the jokes aren’t funny in particular. One running gag is that nobody can pronounce Safranek correctly.

Things pick up late in the film when finally a couple of interesting characters arrive. Dušan Mirković (Christoph Waltz) is a dodgy Serbian businessman involved in import-export. His friend Joris Konrad (Udo Kier) is a former jet-setting playboy who owns a tiny yacht.

Shortly after they arrive, a Vietnamese woman named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) belatedly gets the plot finally into motion.

Early in the film, a news broadcast announced that a small Vietnamese political activist was found hiding in a shipping box for a TV. It is obvious she will be a main character, but the filmmakers pad the movie out with endlessly unnecessary scenes before introducing her.

Dušan and Joris at least bring an exotic element into the boring suburban lifestyle, with noisy parties and talk of big business and travel, They both also give Paul something he desperately needs, some honesty and good advice. Under their sketchy veneer, they are both very decent people.

Hong Chau has had several nominations for best-supporting actress, recently losing out in the Golden Globes to LaVona Golden in I, Tonya. Chau has been criticized for her thick broken-English accent, and also for playing the role of a disabled person when she is not disabled, but acting is all about being something that you are not, and she creates a believable character.

She is good in the film, but Waltz and Kier are better, both nailing their roles in a very casual, almost offhand manner,

Kristen Wiig despite her prominent billing, has only a few scenes.

The film in the end hammers down too hard on its simplistic social issues while offering no real insight or solutions. The mix of humour and social tragedy is a bit unsettling.

The film would have been much better if it introduced Waltz, Kier and Chau much sooner and gave them more adventures on the yacht, going to different settlements of small people. Their arrival in Downsizing was too little too late.

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