TIFF Review: ‘Downsizing’ Probably Should Have Downsized Its Ambition Just A Bit

Downsizing was not what I was expecting.

Well, I take that back, partially. The first act of Downsizing, which is screening this week here at the Toronto International Film Festival, plays out at least in the realm of what a normal person might expect from the advertising. Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an Omaha native (of course he is, this is an Alexander Payne movie) who is struggling to make ends meet working as an occupational therapist for Omaha Steaks. (He had to drop out of medical school to care for his ailing mother.)

Meanwhile, researchers in Norway have invented Downsizing, a process that shrinks a human being down to approximately five inches invented as a way to combat overpopulation and make humans less dependent on natural resources. Downsizing appeals to certain segments of the population because a struggling middle-class worker can live like a king after they are shrunk – which is why Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristin Wiig) decide to downsize themselves and live in a tiny mansion in a tiny downsized community in New Mexico called LeisureLand Estates.

The process of downsizing is a little more horrifying than the sales brochure lets on. First, a patient’s body hair is completely removed. Then, any fillings or other dental work have to be removed because dental work doesn’t shrink and, if they remained while a person was downsized, that person’s head would explode. Regardless, Paul is determined to go through with this and it’s around this point that the movie starts going in quite a few different directions that are impossible to predict.

After watching Downsizing, it’s hard not to imagine that Alexander Payne is feeling pretty apocalyptic these days. Downsizing is Payne’s most ambitious movie, but that also might be his worst enemy here. In one film, Payne and longtime co-writer Jim Taylor take on climate change, overpopulation, race relations, immigration, disenfranchised voters, the complete extinction of the human species, and doomsday cults. (Yes, there’s a lot going on in Downsizing.)

Having let his occupational therapist license expire, Paul has settled into a static life of working as a customer service representative at Lands’ End during the day, and partying with his gigolo neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz, in perhaps his most Christoph Waltz-y role yet) at night. Paul eventually meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese political activist who was imprisoned by her government and downsized as a punishment (oh, yes, Payne also tackles state-sponsored torture) who is now working as a housekeeper for Dusan in the paradise that Paul was promised. As it turns out, even paradise has a working class that lives outside the protective barriers of LeisureLand Estates, separated by, yes, a giant wall.

Payne’s premise is noble, but Downsizing feels like it’s maybe tackling two or three issues too many and would have been better served by focusing more on, say, just the destruction of humans. And that’s not to say Payne doesn’t have a point or that what he’s doing isn’t interesting. There’s a scene in which a drunk bartender berates Paul and Audrey for Downsizing themselves and thinks they deserve to have less than a full vote in the next election. But at times it feels like Payne is juggling so many issues that the narrative gets stuck in neutral. And to make another car reference, it also feels like Downsizing is missing a gear. While watching, I kept waiting for the movie to take off, but, for whatever reason, it never seems to happen. I know I’m doing a poor job of describing it, but there’s never that, “Oh, I see what they are doing, wow, here we go!,” moment. Even though the movie kind of makes you feel like that moment is coming at anytime, it just doesn’t.

Still, I applaud the ambition, even though the film doesn’t fully hit the mark. (Or, more precisely, it maybe hits way too many little marks, but not enough to make a major indentation.) And there’s something to be said about a movie that you will never figure out where it’s going. At one point, in the middle of the third act, I thought back to the scenes at the beginning of the film and I had to honestly convince myself this was the same movie. My brain did not want to believe they were connected.

So, yes, just when you think you have Downsizing figured out, Downsizing becomes a different movie. Then once you think you have that figured out, it changes again. And again, I appreciate Payne’s ambition here, but it’s also his new film’s worst enemy.

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