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"Downsizing" (2017) Review: Big Ideas in a Film About Shrinking

Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.

Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon as Audrey and Paul Safranek in Alexander Payne's "Downsizing."

Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon as Audrey and Paul Safranek in Alexander Payne's "Downsizing."

Wonkavision for the 21st Century

Written by director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) and Jim Taylor (Sideways, Jurassic Park III), Downsizing provides a scientific answer to the world’s biggest problem: technology that allows an individual to shrink him or herself. This causes people to eat less, have less waste, help with financial issues, and reduce the amount of overpopulation on the planet. Shrinking down allows the average man with the average job to live a life of luxury and afford all the things he couldn’t as a full-grown individual.

Quick Summary of Downsizing

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to go through with downsizing together, but Audrey backs out at the last minute yet neglects to inform Paul until after he’s gone through with the irreversible procedure. The rest of the film follows Paul, who feels lost and abandoned, as he tries to find meaning in the tiny civilization he’s been forced to be a part of.

Review: Is It a Comedy? Is It a Drama?

Payne’s science fiction comedic drama has an awkward tone and has difficulty deciding whether it wants to be a comedy or not early on. There are some humorous moments, like Paul checking to see if his genitalia survived after shrinking or the Ngo Lan Tran (Hong Chau) character in general (her eccentric way of speaking and lack of subtlety), but Downsizing is more of a drama than a comedy.

Paul has to start over from scratch after making himself smaller, which is a lot like when a person first hits puberty, moves to a new town, or goes to a new school. This is like hitting the reset button on your entire life, and Paul does just that with where he lives, who he comes home to, and his career.

The Inevitable Question: Would You Downsize Yourself?

There’s something to be said about films that ignite the urge to not only discuss the film you just watched after it ends but also the state of our current living conditions, our planet, and our current economic standing. If Downsizing was an option, would you go through with it? Would your significant other follow suit? Would our economy benefit from it?

Downsizing triggers those conversations with whomever you end up seeing it with as it takes a fascinating stance regarding how to address overpopulation and how that ends up affecting other crucial aspects of society. For instance, does a downsized person still fit into the same cliques? How does downsizing affect the rest of the planet?

A Film in Three Parts

The film seems be divided into three categories:

  • Pre-downsizing
  • Preparing for downsizing
  • Life after downsizing

Most of the humor is found in the preparations for the procedure and what takes place immediately following it. All body hair is shaved, dental fillings are removed, bowels are released, and each subject is taken out of bed with a glorified spatula after shrinking.

Tension Between the Large and the Small

Downsizing taps into what South Park did back in season 10 with the episode “Smug Alert!” The episode revolves around the rise of the hybrid car and hybrid drivers looking down on those who “pollute the environment” with regular vehicles. Similar tension builds in Downsizing comparing shrunken individuals to the full-sized population; questions arise like, “Does their vote still count during elections?” and, “Should they pay the same amount of taxes?”

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) talk about the benefit of shrinking your entire life in "Downsizing."

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) talk about the benefit of shrinking your entire life in "Downsizing."

Stand-Out Performances by Udo Kier and Christoph Waltz

Downsizing makes you realize that you never knew Udo Kier and Christoph Waltz would have such amusing chemistry together on-screen, but now you crave so much more of it after you witness how great it is.

Christoph Waltz has always had this charisma about him that has won him two Oscars. Waltz uses it to his advantage here as an aggressive partier named Dusan and can get laughs or get his point across with a simple grin. His demeanor is infectiously entertaining, despite knowing he’d be a terrible neighbor to have and feeling bad for Paul in the process.

Udo Kier is Dusan’s righthand man named Joris and has some of the best one-liners in the film. Paul’s trippy yet accidental drug sequence utilizes Waltz and Kier to their full potential in hilariously hallucinogenic ways.

It's a Flawed But Thought-Provoking and Fun Film

Downsizing is basically economic commentary shoehorned into a comedic drama driven by a sci-fi concept ripped directly from the Honey, I Shrunk the Kids franchise. While its shrinky-dink, Micro Machines-inspired storyline doesn’t always work and there’s no denying that Downsizing is probably Alexander Payne’s weakest film to date, there’s still a lot of enjoyment found within the film.

Thought-provoking with a cheerful tone, Downsizing gets increasingly more devastating as it inches through its 135-minute duration, but reminds you that being human and compassionate has nothing to do with how big you are

© 2017 Chris Sawin