Downsizing: A film reeking of Long-Cherished Project Syndrome

Intriguing concept gets lost amid naive environmental fantasy in rare disappointment

Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz in Downsizing (2017). Photograph: George Kraychyk Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Film Title: Downsizing

Director: Alexander Payne

Starring: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Keir, Neil Patrick Harris

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 135 min

Wed, Jan 24, 2018, 09:28


The dread reek of Long-Cherished Project Syndrome spills around every corner of Alexander Payne’s strange science-fiction satire. Not enough film-makers conclude, after decades of refusal, that there may be a good reason why nobody wants to finance their epic folly in which trees run the government (or whatever). Barry Levinson’s disastrous Toys remains the key example. There are others.

More than a decade ago, Payne and Jim Taylor, his co-writer, conceived the picture as a follow-up to Sideways. That didn’t happen. Two more Oscar-nominated films, The Descendants and Nebraska, intervened before the boys finally got around to doing what they should have left undone.

Like so many Long-Cherished Projects, Downsizing hangs around one bossy high concept that seeks to corral all the world’s concerns into an enclosed area. Payne imagines a future in which scientists have the ability to shrink humans to the size of their own forefingers. Your money will now go a lot further. A few dollars will buy a diamond that, in relative terms, matches the Koh-i-Noor in hugeness. A patch of land the size of a tablecloth can accommodate a Ducal estate.

Communities are established for the downsized. Citizens can never be returned to their original dimensions, but they can visit their old friends and eat daintily of their provisions.

Paul and Audrey (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), a suburban couple with the usual discontents, are initially reluctant, but they eventually decide to make the leap and enjoy tiny, tiny luxury. The film has some delicious fun with the details of the transformation. Paul places his wedding ring in a smallish L-shaped box and carries it to the downsizing facility. We later learn that, in the tiny world, the box serves as the back end of an articulated lorry. Travelling by train, the still-large Paul notices hordes of tiny passengers mounted happily on nearby shelves.

Damon is just right for this sort of Everyman role. Pressed-down by social norms, he strives to enjoy a paradise that plays to the ambitions of America’s less interesting suburbs. Is this all you want? Huge vulgar houses in the Orlando Style? A Cheesecake Factory on every corner and enough money to enjoy every flavour? Like early episodes of the TV series The Good Place, Downsizing makes some sly (possibly elitist) digs about the paucity of contemporary aspiration.

Matt Damon and Hong Chau in Downsizing (2017). Photograph: Paramount Pictures
Matt Damon and Hong Chau in Downsizing (2017). Photograph: Paramount Pictures

When Paul is forced to move to a less luxurious pad, he gets some enlightenment from a delightfully Euro-trashy neighbour played by Christoph Waltz. Elsewhere, our hero becomes involved with one of the most racially problematic characters in recent cinema. Hong Chau’s touching performance as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist, shrunk as a form of political punishment, cannot distract from the infelicities of the character. A secular saint, prone to outbursts of “Oriental” wisdom, Ngoc Lan Tran would scarcely have seemed like a woke creation (as they then didn’t say) in the grim days of yellowing up.

After some messing about in the miniature slums, the three oddballs find themselves journeying to escape a looming environmental catastrophe. They travel to Norway where . . .

Hang on a moment. You’re probably starting to wonder when we stopped caring about the smallness of the characters. Downsizing knows itself to be an odd film, but the oddest thing about it is its willingness to abandon what initially made it so diverting. By the close, the size of the characters has become largely irrelevant. A confusing, surprisingly naive – for Payne – environmental fantasy is bolted on to a flawed, but engaging, technological comedy to create the sort of overworked muddle that so often characterises Long-Cherished Project Syndrome. At least he’s finally got it out of his system.