Matt Damon doesn’t act so much as he responds to different situations, hence why his defining role is as the amnesiac assassin Jason Bourne – quite literally a tool realising he is a tool. This penchant for the nondescript serves Damon well when a film calls for Joe Bloggs going through a life crisis.
Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s latest venture into middle-American ennui, fits this bill nicely, save for its whimsical premise: as a result of an irreversible medical process, Damon’s character is shrunk to 5 inches tall.
Occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to ‘downsize’ as part of a global effort to tackle overpopulation. A few years after Norwegian scientists have discovered how to do it, littleness has boomed. Gated communities of the tiny, like Disney Land cum the Hamptons, crop up across the United States. And because money goes a lot further when you’re roughly the size of a Coke can, Paul and Audrey are able to ascend several rungs of the social ladder in a single leap.
At least, they would have done, had Audrey not chickened out at the last minute. The newly diminutive Paul wakes up to find that his wife changed her mind mid-procedure, leaving him alone and soon to be divorced. After an encounter with neighbour and aging hedonist Dusan Mirkovic – played with impish charm by Christian Waltz – and one-legged Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), Paul starts to find a meaning to life that was lacking from his existence as just another bloke of average height.
Downsizing draws some brilliant humour from the disjunction of big and teeny, but it is Waltz – with his self-justifying bon mot that ‘the world needs assholes, otherwise where would the shit go out?’ – who steals the limelight. In fact, by around the sixty minute mark Downsizing loses sight of its own central conceit, to the extent that it is largely Waltz’s charisma, and a startlingly good performance by Hong Chau, that keep things interesting.
This is a shame, if only because Payne has so successfully melded bleak laughter and social commentary in the past, particularly in Sideways and Nebraska. Downsizing is generally a more palatable affair, and the key messages that it tries to hammer home – the small world is as corrupt as the big one, Western affluence exploits the world’s poor, we need to take better care of the environment – end up feeling a bit pat.
Payne should perhaps avoid this kind of fantasia in future and return to what he’s best at – stories in which the anxiety of smallness is less literal and more character driven, namely by those hapless over-the-hill males whose delusions of bigness we hate to love.