Between some questionable films and even more questionable comments, Matt Damon has had a pretty rough 2017. His latest film Downsizing, brought to us by the extremely talented Alexander Payne, continues that losing streak in an astounding way. Despite all the talent involved, this is a woeful misfire that ranks among the year’s worst.
Downsizing is a social satire that focuses on the invention of downsizing, or shrinking people in order to take up less space and produce less waste. When an ordinary guy named Paul decides to downsize, he goes to embrace a life of glamour but is drawn into a complicated plot involving the future of the planet.
Downsizing may not be the worst film of the year, but its pretty darn close. Much of its running time left me utterly baffled. How could a film written and directed by Alexander Payne fall so flat? While Payne tosses out some interesting ideas about humanity’s failed efforts to improve our world, none of these concepts are supported by good storytelling or interesting characters.
Matt Damon gives perhaps the worst performance of his career as Paul, who is also one of the year’s worst protagonists. Damon is trying to bring an Omaha everyman to life, but does so with a performance that fails to strike a genuine note. He goes from scene to scene with the same mugging look, not really knowing what to do with this character. To be honest, this role would have been a lot better in the hands of a character actor, similar to Payne’s last film Nebraska.
As far as the character goes, I get Payne’s intentions of making Paul a true everyman, but he does so in the most bland way possible. Paul is in almost every scene of the film, but by the end of it I had no clue what his personality was or what motivates him besides a thinly-constructed desire to make an impact in the world. I think the combination of the bland writing and Damon’s off performance makes for a toxic combination. It’s also troublesome that the character has a real “white savior” complex, which feels noticeably dated and done in poor taste.
Much of the cast struggles to deliver good performances. Christoph Waltz always has great screen presence, but his one-note character gives him very little to work with. Hong Chau gives the best performance here, as she really nails some tough dramatic scenes. It’s a shame that much of the film undermines the character with some of the worst jokes imaginable. The rest of the credited cast are virtually nonexistent.
Its fair to call Alexander Payne one of the most accomplished writers of the century, which is what makes this film’s mess of a screenplay such a shock. Payne is typically one of the sharpest when it comes to satire, and I was interested to see his take on workman class people looking for wealth and environmentalists grasping for answers. This script doesn’t have a funny joke to be seen, with the humor being surprisingly juvenile and obvious. The movie doesn’t even have any fun with its audacious premise, with only a few moments even attempting to utilize the massive size difference.
From a storytelling perspective, Payne (and co-writer Jim Taylor) create a narrative that is borderline incoherent. I do appreciate some of the interesting places Payne tries to take the narrative, but its transitions feel so unnatural and bizarre. What’s most shocking is the film’s third act twist, which feels more like a lecture about the environment and personal fulfillment than an actual movie. I was utterly baffled, and combined with the film’s way too long 135 minute running time it became a painful experience. The way the tone drifts from humor to dour without any natural progression is just off.
There have been movies this year I have walked out with a lot more ire than Downsizing, but few have left me feeling has baffled and disappointed. This is a decent enough concept and there is talent behind it, but it never for a moment feels genuine nor engaging. Let’s hope Payne rebounds with his next effort.