Director: Alexander Payne
Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg
MPAA Rating: (for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use)
Running Time: 2:15
Release Date: 12/22/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | December 21, 2017
At some point in the near but unspecified future, a team of scientists in Norway devise a method of shrinking human beings to, give or take a few inches, the size of a human hand. In Downsizing, this is seen as a scientific miracle of sorts—an instant solution to overpopulation and the various problems associated with it. At the presentation of the first miniaturized people, the scientists present the collected waste of about a dozen people over four years. It fits in a single garbage bag, with room to spare.
The central issue is always in the background: As a species, we're destroying the planet, and it will take something revolutionary to correct the damage. For the movie itself, the concept of "downsizing," then, is the means of telling a modern-day fable about our collective failures. As you might expect, it's a fairly depressing movie, despite co-writers Alexander Payne (who also directed) and Jim Taylor's constant attempts to put a cheery face on the material. After establishing the high stakes and bleak future of our world, the movie quickly shifts gears into a more comic mode, with the process of downsizing providing an opportunity for materialistic wish fulfillment, an ironic realization that matters of class still exist even in this idealized world, and more than a few sight gags involving the juxtaposition of the normal-sized world with the small one.
It's an abrupt shift, and we might not really notice it at first. After all, the movie's ecological concerns have been placed in the background almost from the start. Payne and Taylor's perspective on the central gimmick becomes something else entirely. It's the story of a fairly ordinary guy, played by Matt Damon, who is sick of the economic realities of the normal world. He sees the potential of a steady job, a bigger house, and everything else that a middle-class life is supposed to have. It's right there in front of him, but to get the bigger house would mean a substantial loan. He just finished paying off his student loan debt, and the idea of living another decade or two in more debt just doesn't seem that appealing.
Paul Safranek, Damon's character, is stuck. His wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) wants that middle-class promise fulfilled, but on his salary and with her desire to not do much of anything, that dream is going to remain one. The answer, he learns from an old high school classmate (played by Jason Sudeikis), is to downsize. In the small world, $100,000 translates into millions of dollars—more than enough for a mansion and a life of luxury without having to do any work.
We can relate to Paul's problems, and we immediately can understand the appeal of downsizing. We're intrigued by Payne and Taylor's satirical goals of—almost literally—taking a microscope to the concept of the American Dream.
Then, Paul does indeed downsize himself (The precision of the process, shown in plenty of detail, is amusingly undermined with the appearance of spatulas, which are used to move downsized patients from a normal gurney to an appropriately sized one), and well, the movie pretty much fumbles every idea it has established. Paul's dreams are almost immediately shattered. The big mansion becomes a small apartment. The notion of living a comfortable retirement turns into a dead-end job as a customer-service representative taking phone calls all day. The daily grind has returned, and there seems even less opportunity for upward socioeconomic movement when you're only several inches tall.
The humor is, then, redundant. The movie's few ideas circle around each other without going anywhere. We're introduced to a couple of kooky characters, namely Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), Paul's wealthy upstairs neighbor, and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese woman who was briefly famous for shrinking herself and escaping her homeland in a television box. Chau's performance is notable for how she invests her character, who is essentially little more than a reductionist stereotype (She's aggressive and speaks in broken English), with more life than the screenplay offers.
Payne and Taylor eventually return to the despair of the background—first, stopping in the small world's poverty-stricken areas and, later, bringing the ecological fears to the forefront. The movie seems to be offering hope, even as the underbelly of downsizing and the possibility of an apocalyptic outcome for humanity come into focus. That appears to be the goal, but Downsizing offers only simple, relatively useless solutions in the face of despair. It's worse than cynical, because that at least might provide the movie with some much-needed personality. Instead, the movie offers an existential shrug, which, considering how it wastes its abundance of ideas, is probably appropriate.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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