Movie Review: “Downsizing” (R)

If Charlie Kaufman were to write a “Twilight Zone” episode, it might look a little something like “Downsizing,” a film whose central premise, as seemingly genius as it is, could have worn thin very quickly. But director Alexander Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor (“Election” and “Sideways”) simply refuse to let that happen. This movie is bonkers to be sure, but Payne and Taylor ultimately take this premise and ring truth out of it by way of a big old dose of social satire.

Faced with overwhelming money issues, married couple Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to undergo a revolutionary process called downsizing in an effort to alleviate the pressures that have come with enormous debt. Downsizing is a scientific breakthrough in which individuals are miniaturized to a mere 5 inches tall. With the miniaturization process comes a new found sense of financial gain, but at what cost? This is one of the many themes flowing throughout this odd, whimsical, and undeniably unpredictable movie.

Yes, “Downsizing” is certainly social satire, but it’s also a sci-fi film, a drama, a love story, and a bizarro comedy, all rolled into one. For the first hour or so of the movie, Payne and Taylor delve into both the downsizing process and the dynamics of Paul and Audrey’s relationship. Once Paul is miniaturized and taken to his new home, a downsizer mecca called Leisureland, the film shifts gears, setting aside its high-concept premise and delving into the lives of its endlessly offbeat characters, among them Christoph Waltz’s partying Russian Dusan Mirkovic and a relentlessly pushy (and tenacious) Vietnamese housekeeper named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).

Damon is in full-on everyman mode here, and he’s terrific. That said, “Downsizing” really belongs to Chau in an unforgettable performance that could have easily slipped into a sea of overbearing obnoxiousness. Thankfully, that doesn’t happen. Ultimately, Ngoc Lan Tran is every bit as endearing as she is pushy, and it’s easy to see why Paul engages in such an unshakable bond with her. Chau is the real deal here, and she delivers a couple of emotional powerhouse moments that you’re not likely to forget.

“Downsizing” has a lot to say about consumerism, capitalism, the environment, and the desire to have at it all. But at the heart of it all, this is really a movie about people, how we treat each other, how we should treat each other, and how we want to be treated. True, “Downsizing” is a little episodic in nature, and some characters float in and out of the movie like the wind — watch for Jason Sudeikis in a part that serves as a bit of a companion piece to his role in “Colossal”. But again, Ngoc Lan Tran’s journey really drives the humanity aspect of this movie home.

How “Downsizing” goes about delivering its many messages might not be everyone’s cup of tea. The final act of the film in particular goes off on some pretty strange tangents, but Damon and Chau are so good that for the most part they keep the proceedings pretty reined in. It should also be noted that Payne’s direction is stellar. “Downsizing” is quite the technical marvel, most notably in the first half, but this outstanding storyteller never lets the visual bravado of the movie overpower the character beats or the drama.

“Downsizing” is one ambitious movie, not just in terms of scope and its overall look but in terms of what it has to say about the world we live in. And again, it’s unpredictable. Yes, there are flaws, and yes, there are moments that are a little heavy handed, but for a movie about getting small, “Downsizing” certainly isn’t short on big ideas. This is one of the best films of 2017.

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