The latest film from director Alexander Payne uses the impending dangers of climate change as a catalyst to tell a very personal story about a man unhappy with his station in life and searching for himself. But is it any good?
Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist who, along with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to shrink themselves down in the latest attempt to curtail the massive effect humans have on the planet. In exchange, they’ll have the opportunity to live in a luxurious neighborhood and retire early on their modest savings. However, everything changes when Audrey decides at the last minute not to go through with the irreversible procedure.
Paul must now learn to cope with what is tantamount to being left at the altar. Not only is Paul newly single, but he now can’t afford to pay for the house they bought, and an early retirement is no longer an option. This is pretty much all laid out for us in the trailer above, and while a novel concept and a needed spotlight on the serious environmental situation we now find ourselves in, the movie isn’t overly interesting until about the halfway mark – or roughly once we are introduced to Paul’s neighbor Dusan Mirkovic, played by the brilliant Christoph Waltz.
It’s Dusan that really opens up the world of LeisureLand for Paul, and from there we meet Konrad (Udo Kier) and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). To be honest, Matt Damon often just feels like he’s along for the ride in this movie, with Waltz stealing almost every scene he’s in, and Hong Chau stealing the movie as a whole. It’s her performance as Ngoc Lan Tran that people will remember when this film is looked back on. After all, a political prisoner from Viet Nam turned professional do-gooder is more interesting than a therapist from Nebraska turned telemarketer and professional sad sack. Ngoc Lan Tran’s outlook on life really helps put Paul’s problems in perspective, and her blunt attitude and broken English make her all the more endearing, while Damon’s character just struggles to get through the day like so many bored Americans.
Alexander Payne has a history of making films more beloved by the critics than the audience, from Nebraska to Sideways to Election, his films are usually filled with a dry comedic tone that resonates during awards season, creates cult followings, and are often, quickly forgotten by the masses. This may be a case where that changes. The hook of Downsizing and the incredible amount of play the trailer is getting might be enough to pull people to the theater for a Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig sci-fi comedy, though I don’t know how many of those people will get the film they’re expecting. Payne is a bit slow getting to the setup we all already saw in the commercials, and the movie uses it’s premise only on an ancillary level most of the time. Sight gags and scale-related humor provide a few laughs, but the real story has nothing to do with the characters size, and could easily be told in several other settings.
The movie isn’t bad and has some heartwarming parts, but Damon’s performance and character are both underwhelming and forgettable. Look for Hong Chau to get some possible consideration come awards season, but that’s about it.
GEEK Grade: B-
Downsizing opens for wide release Friday, December 22, 2017.
Images: Paramount Pictures