When you get a high concept idea for a story, you need to work through the writing process and see where the story will take you and develop deeper themes. For example, the high concept of “The Matrix” is ‘what if we were living in a video game reality’, but the story is really about breaking free of boundaries and developing inner confidence. In “Jaws”, the concept is ‘what if a shark attacked a small coastal town’, but the film is about the protagonist overcoming his fear of the water. In “Downsizing”, the high concept of people being shrunk to reduce waste and improve economic well-being is a great and strange idea. The deeper themes are not.
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor and directed by Payne, “Downsizing” is the story of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He convinces his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), to go through the recently announced downsizing program to increase their wealth and hopefully their happiness. When Audrey backs out at the last moment, Paul finds himself abandoned as a five-inch tall man in a community living in dollhouses. A clash with his new neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) leads him on a strange road to downsizing creator Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) and Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).
The first 40 minutes of the film are a slow buildup to the first reveal, but once Paul is on his own, the film takes off and sputters at the same time. Like the point above, the film should be about something else other than just people shrinking. And it is. But “Downsizing” investigates themes of overpopulation, extinction, social class, finding happiness, finding love, finding purpose … It’s all just too much and not enough at the same time, the characters being lost in the shuffle of themes and plot. It feels as though Payne and Taylor had so many different ideas of where to take the story that they just threw as many concepts as they could at the script and just hoped one would stick.
And when the characters are giving breathing space to influence the direction of the story, there’s just not a lot to them. They’re more stereotypes than actual people, especially Ngoc Lan Tran, an annoying cliche of Asian mannerisms that is unacceptable in today’s world.
All in all, “Downsizing” is a great concept, but one bogged down by too many themes and not enough characters. In the hands of someone else like Charlie Kauffman or John Waters (someone more avant garde), the theming could have worked towards much greater and stranger effect, but Payne and Taylor are not the right filmmakers for this sort of concept.