Downsizing, the new film from Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, Nebraska), falls firmly in the director’s ouevre of satirical portraits of American ambition. Yet the director still manages to paint himself into a corner that he struggles to get out of in this divisive work of questionable execution.
It stars Matt Damon as a regular Midwestern guy named Paul Safranek whose life is upended when he goes through the scientific process known as “downsizing”- where he’s shrunken to less than 1% of his current size. When we meet Paul, he is an all too relatable modern guy- one who has pursued his American dream straight into a dead end. He has the peculiar job of occupational/physical therapist at an Omaha Steaks plant in Nebraska, where he helps the meat packers cope with repetitive work injuries. Childless but married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the young couple decide to take the plunge into downsizing- the process of which was invented by Norwegian scientists less than a decade earlier.
It’s touted as the only effective solution to the world scourge of overpopulation, but it seems that most people who go through with it do it so they can finally live a life of luxury. Paul and Audrey find out that their net equity of $150,000 is worth $12,000,000 in this new world. Even though they live a comfortable life, they don’t have significant prospects for upward mobility, and the future is not looking any brighter. There’s a catch though; the process is irreversible. And because there are specific protected communities where the downsized live, it means leaving behind your family and friends who have not yet chosen to go through with it, or may never do so (the Norwegian scientists developed a plan for the entire world’s population to downsize; but only 3% have actually done it).
Using the wizards from Industrial Light & Magic, this is the first of his films to feature any type of effects work, and he gets miles of comedic value out of showing us the shrinking process. While the size contrast looks spectacular, it retains a certain level of artificiality that adds to the satirical nature of the story. It commits fully to the premise, while never forgetting its absurdity.
It’s fascinating to see how something like this would actually be done, and despite the science being of course completely made up (let’s not wait to get Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s take on this, ok?), the attention to the little details is still there. As he wakes up to find a fairly major hitch in his plan, Paul has to suddenly re-evaluate what his life in “Leisure Land,” essentially a super swanky retirement community for the shrunken, will be like.
For the rest of the film, his journey crosses paths with an old high school friend (Jason Sudeikis), a creepily charming European neighbor (Christoph Waltz), his companion (an excellent Udo Kier), and a Vietnamese activist named Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Tran is the first character we meet who was actually shrunken against her will- as a political activist, she was captured by the Vietnamese government and as part of her punishment, made small. She is also the most divisive character of the film. With a very thick south Asian accent, Chau leans into her role as the comedic relief (or distracting stereotype- your choice), making fun of the schlubby Paul as the two develop a bit of a romantic chemistry. As they grow close, we see how even the supposed good life of this new world has kept the system of the haves and have nots from the old world. There’s always been a “wherever you go, there you are” theme running through Payne’s films, never more underlined than here. But it is in this aspect of the film where he gets lost, and ends up digging himself further into a hole he may have been better off sidestepping in the first place. Because he can’t quite treat a sensitive subject with a little bit of grace, he ends up making it a bit of a punchline instead.
And yet, this narrative detour leads to a solid final chapter of the film, where it’s considered that not even downsizing might be enough to fully save our species. In 2017 I have spent a lot of time questioning the future of humanity on this planet, and Downsizing is only the second movie I have seen this year that grapples with the current feasibility of our existence (War Of The Planet Of The Apes would be the other). And yet, It’s here where I learned that the title can work as a double entendre. Sometimes, to downsize our lives can also mean to focus our attention away from how many years we have left on the planet, and more to the things that we can impact, such as our relationships; and not who we imagine we’ll end up with, but who actually sticks around. Of all the well known faces and names who show up in this, I never would have guessed that Paul ends up by the side of the people he ends up with. Downsizing is an ode to choosing your little slice of grass in the universe- astro-turf or the real thing.
Downsizing opens in Philly theaters today.