Just before we fall asleep or in the shower we come up with some fantastic ideas. If I had a notebook that did not get destroyed by water I would be a much better writer. Some of these great ideas might be suitable to be made into a movie. A cool concept that jumps off the page and demands to be put on the big screen. But maybe you should hold off on making it into a full movie just yet. Cool concepts are just that, cool concepts. You need a lot more than a concept to make a feature length movie. You’ve got two hours to fill, a nice idea isn’t going to cut it. So can Downsizing be more than a cool idea?
In an attempt to reduce the impact man has on the world, people are being encouraged to downsize, a treatment which turns people five inches tall. One of the people who undertakes this treatment in search of a better life is Peter Safranek (Matt Damon, Good Will Hunting) but he soon finds that the grass isn’t greener when you are small.
So you are probably looking at this synopsis and thinking this movie could be cool. And you are right, the concept is immediately interesting. We’ve seen a lot of movies use the concept of people becoming smaller, Honey I Shrunk The Kids being the classic in this particular genre, but I can’t think of any that decided to show an entire society of people who have turned small in benefit of themselves and society. Because while downsizing is good for the environment, the main reason a lot of people do it is because their money is worth a lot more down there and they can live the life of luxury and not work ever again. It’s the temptation of being able to live in such bliss for the rest of the days that persuades the main characters and many others to downsize and become small.
However things don’t go well. Peter ends up having very little money and has to work a call centre job to live which is not exactly what was promised. This is where the problems start. I think the movie is trying to be a parable on the life of an immigrant and why they choose to head to other countries. Basically, they are told they are heading to a place where the streets are paved with gold and soon find out that it is anything but and they have been scammed. But if it is that, then it is still flawed. Spoilers ahead but the reason Peter ends up having to take that call centre job is because of a divorce which takes all of his new-found wealth away. And that divorce was not due to the stress caused by the downsizing but that his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids) bailed on the downsizing. For me that means that Audrey should be the one at fault but that doesn’t really matter to this. So this is a theory that I can’t really prove.
And for a movie that is described as a social satire on IMDB, that is a problem because you can’t really work out what it is meant to be satirising. There’s bits and pieces of things that you think they might be satirising. Peter starts up a friendship with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, Inherent Vice) who a few years before had been the talk of the world because she had been the only survivor of a group of small people who tried to emigrate to the USA via a Target delivery. When Peter meets her, she is cleaning toilets for a particularly sleazy Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) and has been forgotten. This is a jab at how quickly we move on from big news stories but that’s all it is, a jab. That’s what this movie does with any big themes, it jabs rather than commits. There’s a lot of big issues the movie touches on such as white guilt and environmentalism but all it really says is that these issues exist. It adds nothing to the debate.
On the actual nuts and bolts of the story there are issues too. Mainly because there are no nuts and bolts. When this movie was proposed, the idea of the downsizing was sold and they assured the investors some sort of plot would be made up. And they didn’t really make a plot up. As soon as Peter is downsized, the movie has done it’s signature piece and isn’t quite sure what to do after it. It would be like if Journey did Don’t Stop Believin’ in the middle of its set. There really isn’t anything else to do from there. The movie tries a lot of things but there is no solid plot thread to latch onto when everything has gone small. Peter has done decently rebuilding his life and while he’s unhappy, there’s not much movement on that during the movie. I suppose there’s the relationship between Peter and Ngoc Lan Tran but there’s very little interesting there. The movie becomes a bore because there’s nothing interesting in the world of the small.
None of the performances are anyway good enough to save it either. Matt Damon is on cruise control as this perpetually naive guy who seems to just breeze through life having no impact on anything. He is just a random person and there is nothing to mark him out as a protagonist of a movie. There is no one on the outskirts of the story that tempts your interest either. This is possibly the worst Christoph Waltz performance as he is just so forgettable other than I’d wager that he was drunk in some scenes. I can’t really think of anyone else in this movie despite the fact that IMDB tells me there were a tonne of big names in this. When you have a lot of great actors and make them this forgettable, it’s insulting.
Downsizing is a cool concept. That’s it. Maybe this idea would have made for a good short movie but in trying to stretch this to over two hours, they expose that no one had any idea what do with the concept. So instead the writers chuck a load of ideas into the mix and hope that one of them sticks. None of them stick. I talk a lot about focus because so many films lack it and this is another prime example. It has no idea what it is satirising so it just does bits and pieces so it has no effect. It’s a small mercy when it finally ends.