Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
This is an ambitious film for Alexander Payne. In the past his films, including Sideways, The Descendants, and Nebraska, have tended to focus on average people in common, familiar situations with a slight satirical edge. He is a writer and director who thrives on the ordinariness of suburban America and its discontented individuals. Downsizing isn’t much of a departure for him; it retains his realist style, sense of humour, and focus on story and character over plot. Still, never before has Payne told a story where the themes have reached so far beyond the individual. As well as a film about one man’s search for belonging, happiness, and meaning, Downsizing is about environmentalism, the American culture of wealth and leisure, and white privilege. It’s a movie that starts off with a simple premise in Payne’s typically quirky manner but then gets more serious towards the end until it’s completely overwhelmed by the larger, apocalyptic implications of its story. The first half works well. The second half doesn’t.
Our everyman is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He lives a pretty aimless life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) in Omaha where he works as an occupational therapist (not a doctor). He’s in that state where he’s realising that this isn’t the life he hoped he would have, that things just got away from him and now he’s stuck in a rut looking for some kind of change. At a high school reunion he and Audrey come face to face with Paul’s old buddy Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) and his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe), who both got downsized (shrunken to a minuscule fraction of their original size) and seem happier for it. Downsizing is a recent phenomenon that was devised as a solution to the environmental crisis being caused by humankind, but for Dave and Carol it was a chance at a second life where they get to live in luxury with their inflated wealth. Paul discusses the matter with Audrey and together they decide to just go for it and get downsized.
The scenes where we see the downsizing process in action make up the best part of the film. Payne’s imagination and attention to detail help to sell the idea to the audience and make for an amusing sequence as we see everything that is involved with taking the plunge in stature. The process only works on living tissue, therefore participants must have every inch of body hair shaved, every filling in their teeth removed, and must be completely nude. The facility has a team of normal-sized dentists on hand to work on everybody’s teeth before the process and a team of downsized dentists to work on them after. Once the process is done and the humans have been shrunk down to five or so inches, we also get to see the nurses carefully lift their sedated and now fragile bodies from their beds into boxes using spatulas. One can only wonder how the trial and error phase of the programme’s development went and what would happen if something went wrong (although we do learn later in the film why exactly the tooth fillings need to be removed). Paul wakes up at the end of it all to learn that Audrey backed out at the last second, leaving him little and alone.
Thus we follow Paul to Leisureland where he’s just as miserable as he was before getting downsized. His divorce from Audrey has sapped him of his expected wealth meaning that, far from living in luxurious paradise without a care or worry in the world, he must work a similarly menial job as he did in his old life to make ends meet. His social life in mostly non-existent, save his interactions with his noisy upstairs neighbour Dušan Mirković (Christoph Waltz), an Eastern-European party animal who feels it is his duty to teach Paul that life can still be fun. Paul however is more drawn to Dušan’s Vietnamese cleaning lady Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), an activist who caused an international incident, barely survived fleeing her country, and was downsized against her will. Seeing her limp around on her ill-fitting prosthetic leg, Paul tried to help her and gets drawn into the plights of the downtrodden and overlooked residents of Leisureland.
This is where the film ventures beyond Paul’s story as an individual and starts exploring the bigger picture themes. On the one hand this should be a welcome change of course given what a dull character Paul has been. As the everyman Paul is a nonentity; he’s our way in to the surreal world of Leisureland but there is nothing compelling about his character or his arc to make him worth getting invested in. It certainly doesn’t help that the movie surrounds Paul with other characters who turn out to be much more interesting and entertaining than him, from the smarmy Dušan to the high-strung Ngoc Lan to the absent Audrey. On the other hand, the bigger picture never quite comes into fruition because Payne cannot really decide which way he wants to go. It’s never clear just how seriously the film takes the questions being raised and yet the film gets so caught up in those questions that it loses sight of what the original premise was supposed to be, leading to a conclusion feels largely unsatisfying.
The premise was an interesting one to start with; it fell right under Payne’s usual shtick of everymen looking for changes in their lives with an interesting sci-fi twist. Somewhere along the line however the film just lost me. The nondescript protagonist ends up in quite a generic story about learning to care for the less fortunate and along the way the movie diverges towards themes of ecological preservation, racial segregation, and materialism and gets so mixed up in them all that I couldn’t remember what the original point was supposed to be. I was enjoying this film quite a bit until I wasn’t and in the end I found myself feeling more disappointed than I was outraged, irritated, or uninterested. There’s a very good film in here somewhere but Payne lost sight of it. It’s still an interesting film and there is some good humour along the way, but ultimately Downsizing is an unsatisfying watch.