Downsizing, director Alexander Payne’s latest film, is an interesting beast in a strong body of work. Set in a near future, the narrative utilises the lofty concept of “downsizing”: the irreversible process of shrinking humans down to approximately five inches tall as means of combating overpopulation. Opening in a world where both normal and “downsized” people coexist, the film follows strapped-for-cash occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) who lives with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). They ponder the procedure after meeting a friend at a reunion party, who reveals other benefits – financial security, for one.
To reveal any more would be a disservice to the film as this is what is sold in the marketing. However, Downsizing has a lot hidden up its sleeve, perhaps accounting for the film’s decidedly mixed reception. It’s actually a lot better than the reviews would suggest, and is a marvel in world-building. The settings that Payne creates are frequently awe-inspiring and the minutiae admirable, greatly elevating the verisimilitude of the film.
That said, a tonal shift midway through does feel like a switch-and-bait. There is still enjoyment to be had in the slightly more familiar, “finding oneself ” narrative route Payne explores, even though its moral messages are delivered heavy-handedly.
Downsizing balances comedy and emotion well, and is bolstered by being both thematically rich and chock-full of metaphors, right down to the very concept of the film itself, interrogating political and planetary notions. The performances are sound, the highlights being those of being Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier. To see both German-speaking stalwarts share the screen is very satisfying.
Downsizing is a commendable effort by Alexander Payne, with transfixing worldbuilding, but it requires one to have faith in the tonal shift in its second half. The first half is much stronger, but the direction it takes thereafter is probably why many have taken quite sourly to the film: you don’t exactly get what the trailers promised.