It takes more than an hour for “Downsizing” to look up. Then, Hong Chau arrives as a Vietnamese refugee and gives the film purpose.
Before then, it’s a lot of anticipation – ketchup-level anticipation.
Matt Damon stars as an occupational therapist who decides to “get small” in a new movement to help save the planet. He and his wife (Kristen Wiig) opt to be downsized to about five inches. In their new home – LeisureLand – they’re able to have a mansion at the fraction of its “real size” price. There are other perks, too, but the mere idea of never returning to life-size bothers her. She bails after he has gotten small, forcing a new reality on a man who wasn’t ready for it.
How Damon maneuvers this world isn’t all that far off from how he handled life in “The Martian.” Director Alexander Payne sells the concept nicely but doesn’t really know where to go with it. He lets Damon explore his new world (including the wild life of the upstairs neighbors) and gives him plenty of grief before meeting Chau’s Ngoc Lan. She’s a maid, trying to help others in her small world ghetto. He helps her gather food, treat those who don’t have health care and find meaning, but it’s a long slog before they get to meet the man who created the “downsizing” concept.
Payne helps us believe a smaller footprint can exist and gets titters here and there from some of the awkwardness. But “Downsizing” doesn’t have the plot (or subplots) that could keep us waiting for more. What happens to Wiig’s character, for example? What’s life like in other parts of LeisureLand? How do matters there get settled?
Like Walt Disney’s original plan for EPCOT, an ultra-planned community must have growing pains. We lose Jason Sudeikis early on (he’s an early adaptor) and don’t see any of the folks who welcomed Damon to their world (from Neil Patrick Harris to Niecy Nash).
He plays the everyman role well (Tom Hanks, apparently, has stepped aside) and has fun with outsized objects (like a divorce decree and a rose), but he’s not the catalyst Chau turns out to be.
She arrives like a hurricane, messes with his plan and becomes a priority. She also delivers the film’s best performance, outpacing two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (as a playboy neighbor) and Rolf Lassgard (as the shrinking expert).
While some may quibble with Chau’s accent, it helps define her and the divide between characters. She doesn’t force it but she does get attention.
The ending – for all it’s worth – should have had more punch, particularly since Payne took such time getting to it.
Had it frontloaded “Downsizing” with more humor, it might have had stronger resonance. Now, we just think, “OK, that’s the way it turns out,” and move on.
There’s gold here. It’s just not mined.