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TIFF Review: Downsizing – “Big on potential”

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With the current environmental disasters making their way through the United States, never has climate change and the way we treat our earth seemed more relevant. Thousands of people recently displaced by hurricanes Harvey and Irma have felt the brunt of worsening storms to horrific effect. And while, in the real world, governments have signed accords, trying to take small measures to protect the environment, what if a more drastic option was available to preserve our planet?

Such is the theory in Alexander Payne‘s newest, Downsizing. In the film, scientists in Norway have successfully managed to shrink biological matter to a fraction of its size – making the average human only five inches tall. This decreases waste, increases resources, and makes your personal wealth stretch further than if you were your normal size. The latter is the motivation for Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to leave their life and move to Leisureworld, a habitat for small sized people that boasts big mansions, shopping, even miniature Cheesecake Factory restaurants. The good news is, for the floundering couple, their personal wealth of $152k equates to $12.5 million in the miniature world! Paul, who is an occupational therapist at a meat factory is immediately attracted, wanting to keep Audrey happy, yet unable to give her the luxuries she craves.

However, unforeseen circumstances strand Paul in the small world on his own, leaving him aimless. He has given up everything in his life. He once wanted to be a surgeon but gave up his dream to care for his mother. He wanted to live large in Leisureworld but is soon stuck working a menial job, living in a small apartment, while his eccentric upstairs neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz) hosts massive parties and those around him live the high life. Paul thinks he has made a huge mistake, until fate puts Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) in his path, a Vietnamese refugee cleaning homes to make ends meet. From there, the unlikely trio and their adventures become life altering for them all.

There’s nothing particularly special about the performances in Downsizing, though the few cameos that arise in the film are largely amusing.  The definite scene stealer here is Chau who, though dealing with often over-the-top Asian stereotypes, manages to absolutely shine.  She brings the only real emotional fortitude to the film and is certainly the most interesting to watch.

The first half of Downsizing works well, the premise is intriguing and the societal questions it brings up are equally interesting, though not dealt with nearly enough.  It could have been a much different film had it just decided to explore those aspects.  However, if you don’t want to think too much and just enjoy the ride, you easily can, and in this way Downsizing is at its best when you are watching Paul and his small peers learn their way around their tiny world. It’s humorous and original – an adult Honey I Shrunk the Kids for those that grew up watching that movie. The novelty of the small world, while gimmicky, doesn’t really wear thin (a store that sells normal sized roses? Great fun!). However, the film gets so muddled with messages at the end that it loses its way. It’s constantly changing lanes between Paul’s quest to find himself and being a true social satire, the film never feels like it knows what it is truly supposed to be.  It seems as if a movie big on potential, in the end just feels unfortunately small.

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