Visual interest doesn't save boring characters in 'Downsizing'

Despite a thought provoking premise, the film gets side-tracked by side-plots.

by Haley Gordon | 9/19/17 12:15am

Going into “Downsizing,” all I knew was the major overarching concept. People were shrinking in order to get more bang for their buck, in a strangely practical use of science fiction technology. An odd premise; one that makes you both eager to get to the ramifications and impatient with opening scenes establishing the given circumstances.

After grounding the technology within the realm of a genius scientist and a cult of environmental enthusiasts introducing the world to this new procedure, the story jumps in time to meet the main protagonist, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). In an exchange devoid of conflict, the two eventually decide to “get small” and downsize, to live in the lap of luxury at a price they can afford in Leisureland Estates. 

Most likely intended as an Everyman-esque character, Safranek is an American man defined by his lack of character traits. He goes through the motions of everyday life while he is “Big,” and that lackluster attitude continues in his life while he is “Small.” He doesn’t realize his dream of becoming a doctor, he doesn’t have an exciting sex life, he doesn’t watch the news. He rarely even emotes. His party-obsessed neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) correctly pegs Paul as pathetic in a conversation that might have been revelatory or achingly sad but wasn’t. 

A downsized environmental activist Ngoc Lan Tran, played by a sparkling Hong Chau, burst through the white-washed suburban landscape with a scowl and no nonsense attitude. Tran has decided the fame accompanying her escape from prison is not for her, and turns to a smaller scale of activism — she takes care of members of her housing community, located on the outskirts of the community and without all of the amenities and perks advertised to the wealthier clientele living in the center of Leisureland Estates. Oh, and these residents do not get leisure, they get to perform the service jobs, like cleaning houses, that allow higher paying people to relax — just as in the Big world. Chau brings an earnestness to the table that far surpasses the others and is a welcome relief from the forced cynicism and complacent, tranquilized acceptance brought by the Waltz and Damon respectively. 

This disparity is intentional of course. The movie has been described as a social satire, and it does showcase economic and racial disparities constantly. Unfortunately, I continually had to remind myself that it was a satire. Especially when off-color moments earned laughter – like smatterings of chuckles at Tran’s strong Vietnamese accent. Hopefully the films’ creators did not intend that attribute as a punchline. 

Ultimately, I struggled to ascertain what was comedic, what was insightful and what was cloyingly extraneous. However, I confess to enjoying the confusing moments more than the ones whose meaning was practically stamped on them, like the insertion of a “man-gets-high-for-the-first-time” scene.

  Paul Safranek immediately gets caught up in Tran’s life, as she adopts him as a kind of assistant and subsequently jolts him out of his routine. More and more, I wished the writers would allow Tran to pull focus. Instead, we watch Tran go through her normal day through Paul’s dopey eyes. Paul, who cannot fathom her sacrifice and work, eventually falls for her. And the hardest part for me to believe in this science fiction film was that she falls for him, too. 

That aside, the visuals of this film were exciting. Shots played with scale and visual illusions, and the novelty of seeing miniaturized people interact with regular-sized everyday items never quite wore off. Marveling at the technological success of making this movie might be worth the first watch, but the story fails to convince me that it deserves a second.

Rating: 5/10