‘Downsizing’ can’t find the intrigue in its own story

Well the small person effects are pretty fun, at least. Image courtesy Paramount Pictures.

4/10 Downsizing has some big ideas, but it can’t convert its passive protagonist into a more interesting movie.

In an attempt to save the human race from extinction while reducing the catastrophic effect we have on the planet, scientist Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) develops a procedure to reduce living creatures to around 2 percent of their mass and volume with no consequences. Asbjørnsen and global governments set up communities for the tiny people who undergo the procedure, who are then able to live like kings because of how few resources that would then take, but over a 15-year period, the technology is quickly incorporated into the unrelenting hellscape of socio-political injustice the ’10s have become. Dissidents in oppressive countries are downsized against their will, people who choose to downsize face persecution because of the effect they’re having on the economy, and the same distinctly racial systems of inequality quickly form within downsized communities.

But Downsizing takes place far from the troubles associated with the procedure. It follows Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who decides to get small with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) but is abandoned by her soon after. After a year of declining economic status because of their divorce and his failure to transfer his medical license, Safranek meets Serbian partyboy Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who makes a fortune trading on the price difference between regular-sized and small sized goods.

Downsizing really suffers from so much of its story happening offscreen. It’s easy to sympathize with Safranek, who is helpless in his own narrative against the apparently unstoppable tide of global warming and injustice, but it’s just kind of lame to watch. The movie is full of concepts that I’d love to sit down and wrestle with, but I spent most of the film with my attention drifting away.

The most intuitive fix would be to give Safranek a job that directly deals with global crises, but he already has a thematically relevant position. Safranek was an occupational therapist when he was full sized, and he’s constantly putting those skills to use while small even though he didn’t transfer the license over. The basic idea is this character wants to help people and the movie puts him in positions where he can’t. It’s a small-scale metaphor for his role in the global plot, but really it just puts him in more positions where he can’t do much of anything.

There’s definitely an art to writing a passive protagonist — The Dude from The Big Lebowski is a good classic example of this done well — but despite some hauntingly beautiful moments, Downsizing just sort of falls flat all the way through.

Post-Weinstein blunder: Safranek befriends Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), whom he meets cleaning Mirkovic’s apartment and begins working with after — you know what? It’s a long story. But late in the film, Safranek, who I’ll remind you is being played by Matt Damon, leans down and kisses her in her sleep. It’s gross. Tran then wakes up and says she wants him, so it’s also tone deaf.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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