I watch a lot of movies. Like, a lot of movies.
I can safely say that it’s a rarity 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 films in its second half.
That’s what happened when I watched the latest Matt Damon vehicle, director Alexander Payne’s (Election, Sideways) punishably off-balanced Downsizing.
The film starts as brilliant satire mixed with science fiction. Scientists have discovered a way to reduce resource consumption on our planet by shrinking people and putting them into miniature utopian communities. Not only do humans generate less trash, but their finances improve in the downsized communities. 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. Paul completes the process and miniaturizes, but Audrey has some complications during the head-shaving part. So, Paul winds up all alone in a newly shrunken world, and he’s completely pissed off.
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, delivering a screenplay that’s full of interesting insights. Visually, it can even be called a triumph. Scenes of full-sized 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—a giant, King Kong shit on the screen. After maintaining a respectable level of charm until its halfway point, Downsizing rapidly disintegrates into utter boredom and nonsense.
As if no one knew where to really take the story after Paul enters the shrunken world, the movie gets politically obvious, even stereotypical, in depicting Paul’s new-world problems. The second half starts off with his dating woes. Paul trying to enter the dating and party world in his new surroundings has potential, and probably could’ve worked as the crux of the final acts. It’s not as good as the promising first half, but it’s cute enough to be entertaining.
When Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), essentially an illegal, shrunken immigrant, warning 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 and small. Yeah, OK. This is supposed to be a fantasy/satire.
So, instead of continuing as biting satire in an almost Kubrickian way, the movie becomes afraid of itself, and Payne tries to make a feel-good message movie that winds up insulting our intelligence. It drags on forever as Paul travels to the original “shrunken person” colony in attempt to save the species. None of this works in the unique, cohesive way the film started. The whole enterprise feels like two movies, one good, one really bad.
I do believe Payne could’ve found a way to mix Paul’s tribulations with worldly problems, but what he’s come up with is so heavyhanded and predictable, it trashes all of his good intentions. This is not a movie that deserves a happy ending. It had a chance to really say something about the damage selfish humans inflict upon the planet and themselves, but it go all touchy-feely.
Matt Damon, other than that awesome Thor cameo, 2017 just wasn’t your year.