Sometimes films are a letdown from the opening frames. But it’s much rarer for a film to be a letdown because it’s been so thrilling early on and then just disappeared down some bizarre rabbit hole that fails to live up to any of what’s come before, like this movie. It’s also another example of how we always complain about Hollywood not having any original stories but how unexpected and original doesn’t always mean good.
The science that’s discovered to reduce a human being to only five or six inches in size is handled and portrayed beautifully for the first half of the movie. It starts with a presentation by a European scientist to a technology conference after they’ve perfected the process.
It both describes and shows the infrastructure and industry that grows up around the nascent field of miniaturisation beautifully – how it’s sold as the answer to runaway environmental damage, the big decision participants make to go through the irreversible process, the places to live and the tiny machinery and townships that spring up to support them.
We see the steady adoption of miniaturisation through the eyes of occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). At first they’re amazed and bemused like the rest of the world, but they’re also bogged down with financial problems, and when they meet another sunny suburban couple Dave (Jason Sudeikis) and Carol, they learn the truth about why miniaturisation is a good idea – it increases the value of your money exponentially.
When they visit Leisuretown, a purpose built mini community, it’s another very realistic depiction of what it’d really be like, with a Disneyland-like atmosphere of presentations, colourful banners and an amusing stage show from spruiker Neil Patrick Harris, who’s showing off his house and gently berates his lovely stage wife (Laura Dern) for spending a whole $84 on a diamond necklace and bracelet.
Paul and Audrey decide to take the plunge, which involves a production line of having one’s hair all shaved off, fillings removed, etc and being reduced in size in a chamber like the one we saw the scientists perfect at the beginning but on an industrial scale.
But Paul is rudely shoved into act two when he gets a phone call from Audrey after waking up – she couldn’t go through with the procedure, has returned home to her parents and is leaving him (there’s an amusing scene of Paul subsequently visiting his lawyer to sign enormous divorce papers).
He tries to settle in to his new life in the idyllic community with a luxurious mansion and car but Paul is bereft, working a dead end job in customer service. After arguing with his upstairs neighbour about the noise of constant parties he goes up to confront him one night but is invited in.
Dušan (Christoph Waltz) is an Eastern European former gangster who now runs contraband into and out of Leisuretown, a surprising but entirely realistic parallel to the full sized world outside, and he invites Paul to partake in the business opportunities as well as his lavish parties populated by very hot people.
After spending more time at Dušan’s place Paul notices recognises Ngoc (Hong Chau), one of Dušan’s housekeepers, as the Vietnamese political dissident who was downsized against her will by her government, escaped to the US and had to have her leg amputated from injuries she sustained during the trip. With his professional background Paul offers to help her, going to her home outside the official Leisuretown gates where the poor and outcast live in a huge (tiny) tenement slum.
As Paul grows closer to Ngoc, Dušan takes them both on a trip to the site of the first tiny settlement in Norway along with his friend (Udo Kier), where the scientist who first perfected the miniaturisation procedure has dire news. Because of Arctic methane emissions the human race can’t survive, so the community has fashioned a bunker under a mountain where they’ll hide and try to ride out humanity’s apocalyptic end.
By the time Paul prepares to enter a huge metal door in the side of a mountain to escape the end of the world where he started with an amazing scientific process to shrink him to a twelfth of his original size, your head will be spinning. It’s too much, it goes in too many weird directions and cobbles too many ideas together too haphazardly.
In fact, everything feels so disjointed and clumsy it almost might have worked better as a series with one episode devoted to Norway, one to the bunker, one to Ngoc and Paul’s relationship, etc.
The stuff about there being an underground economy and a slum of downsized people like in the full sized world would have provided fodder enough for a great story. Sudeikis role as the acquaintance who first reveals the truth about why downsizing is so great – that it’s about money rather than the environment – represents a very American notion that could have been explored much deeper and formed the basis for a vibrant satire on consumerism, but he disappears after only one or two scenes.
In fact it takes so many neck-breaking turns you start to forget the whole miniaturisation premise. When the settlers enter the mountain and the countdown ends to bring the side of the hill down over the door, sealing them inside, there’s a tiny spark and a little crumble of dirt plops down over the hole, reminding you it’s the size of a mouse hole in a skirting board.
So many details are mere background but make it so realistic and relatable, like the way Paul can’t get work as an occupational therapist now he’s miniaturised because Leisuretown is in another state and his license isn’t valid.
And the brilliant VFX supports the world building beautifully. When they’re all boating down the fjords of Norway, the water very subtly behaves as if it’s a tiny toy boat rather than a full sized skiff. Above Leisuretown, you can see the fabric that constitutes the ‘sky’ with folds and pillars holding it all aloft. There are a million little details quite aside from hero shots of tiny and full sized people interacting in everyday life that make it all seamless.
There was so much to love about it in the first hour, but as soon as Paul drops acid given to him at a girl at one of Dušan’s parties it’s like director/writer Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor hadn’t thought of anything else to do but set themselves the task of coming up with the most bizarre unrelated motifs they could and making them fit together.
It’s audacious and you’ve certainly never seen anything like it, and as always we can’t really complain about a writer or director who tries to do something different and original, but Downsizing is proof that it doesn’t always work.
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