Honey, I shrunk my brain
Smart sci-fi satire turns dumb in second half
I t’s rare for me to get halfway into a movie thinking, “Say, this could be one of the year’s best films!” only to have it become one of the year’s worst during its second half.
That’s what happened when I watched the latest Matt Damon vehicle, the extremely off-balanced Downsizing, directed by Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways).
The film starts as brilliant satire mixed with science fiction. Scientists have discovered a way to reduce energy and resource consumption on our planet by shrinking people and putting them into miniature utopian communities. By doing this, the finances they take into the downsized communities essentially make them rich once converted. A standard bank account goes from being worth thousands to millions.
Damon plays Paul, an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks living a humdrum life from paycheck to paycheck. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are tantalized by the idea of being millionaires in a new world, getting out of their crowded house and into something a little roomier with a nice pool. They decide to take the plunge, and get small.
Without giving too much away, things don’t go exactly as planned, but up until this point, the film is everything you want out of this kind of movie. It’s clever, with Damon tapping into his laid-back comic charms and delivering on a screenplay (written by Payne and Jim Taylor) that’s full of interesting insights. Visually, it can even be called a triumph. Scenes of full-size adults chatting with mini people are seamless. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. This movie was racing up my Best of 2017 list.
Then … it takes an epic dump. After maintaining a respectable level of charm until its halfway point, Downsizing rapidly disintegrates into utter boredom and nonsense. It’s as if they didn’t know where to take the story after Paul enters the shrunken world, as things get politically obvious, even stereotypical, with the new small-world problems.
When Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), essentially an illegal shrunken immigrant, alarms start going off. The movie wants to hammer you on the head with some kind of grand message. Downsizing tries to become some statement about how typical large-world problems would most certainly follow us into the shrunken world because humans are the same big or small. But instead of developing the biting satire in an almost Kubrickian way, the movie chickens out, and Payne tries to steer things to a feel-good movie that winds up insulting our intelligence.
It drags on forever as Paul travels to the original “shrunken person” colony in an attempt to save the species. None of this works in the unique, cohesive way the film’s first half did, and the whole enterprise ends up feeling like two movies—one good, one really bad.
I do believe Payne could’ve found a way to connect Paul’s tribulations with worldly issues—the damage selfish humans inflict upon their environment and themselves—in a meaningful way, but the touchy-feely route he’s followed is heavy handed and predictable, trashing any of his good intentions.