Alexander Payne is one of cinema’s most brilliant and consistent directors to come into the fold in the last two decades with films that have not only balanced heart and humour to wonderful effects but bring us some of the most eclectic group of characters. Whether it was Miles & Jack as they made their way through the luscious vineyards of California, Warren Schmidt and his travelling RV or Tracy Flick’s ambitions of being class President. So it’s something of a crushing disappointment to report that the helmer’s new venture, the eagerly-anticipated Downsizing, is perhaps his least likeable film thus far.
More high-concept than anything he has done so far (his script work on Jurassic Park III notwithstanding), Downsizing focuses on a near-future science breakthrough to revolutionise our over-populated planet – shrinking humans to around an inch in size and housing them in smaller surroundings to help reduce humans carbon footprint, amongst other things. Paul (Damon) sees the procedure as a way to a better life for him and his wife… (Wiig) but soon discovers that life at ground level isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
What’s evident as the film progresses is just how much this doesn’t feel like a Payne/Taylor movie – it has the heart and humour you would expect but it’s lacking a spark, both in conceit and in characters with no-one from the eclectic cast really making a mark. The first hour or so, with the Downsizing gimmick taking hold of the story, moves along a good pace with laughs aplenty coming from the absurdist nature of the conceit but as soon as Christoph Waltz is introduced to proceedings things take a sharp turn that only ever heads downwards.
Indeed, with the addition then of Chau’s illegal political-activity immigrant and a forced love-story component, the whole thing loses any momentum it gained and pretty much disposes of the original concept as if the idea only spread so far. Damon, always a winning presence as the everyman, is on good form here but he struggles with tonal shifts of the film and ends up looking as lost as his character. The ambition is certainly to be applauded here and Payne has stepped somewhat out of his comfort zone in terms of ambition and scale, and coupled with some winning performances gets a lot right but sadly the story doesn’t match its lofty dreams and it all falls a bit, well, short.
There are certainly things to admire about Downsizing, not least in both its scope and satirical edge about our planet’s current status both on the ground and in the air as Payne and Taylor try to present such themes in a unique and arresting environment. But just as the film starts to settle into its point it decides to go off on a tangent and ends up lost in a sea of ideas that feel like they are from another movie and as such the film becomes something of a bore for its remaining moments. A big disappointment.