Directed by Alexander Payne
by GD Hoffman
Downsizing is a big movie about smallness. It conveys large ideas and opinions regarding humanity in several polarizing areas like class, politics, ecology, technology, commercialism, totalitarianism, democracy, foreign relations, and so on. The story examines how a single change can affect the overlapping sociological fabric of global civilizations. What that change represents does not really matter aside from providing space for a few sight gags and one-liners.
Obviously, that is not how the film has been marketed. One might expect a silly yet grounded dramatic comedy revolving around raw and relatable people and emotions. Alexander Payne has done this successfully before, especially with The Descendants, About Schmidt, Nebraska, and Sideways. Unfortunately, the story in Downsizing is not enough about the protagonist to be fully compelling.
In Downsizing, we explore the proposed miniaturization of humanity through a man named Paul, played by Matt Damon. Paul is a Midwestern Joe American average guy from Nebraska. He's too good for his own good, but not good enough for anybody else to care. His primary motivation for “downsizing” is wealth. However, the reason why Norwegian scientists developed the procedure in the first place was to reduce humanity's footprint on the planet, not to increase the middle-class quality of life.
This discrepancy serves as the main conflict of the film. If it sounds exhausting, that's because it is, but not at first. If you're looking for “Honey I Shrunk the Cocktail Party,” you'll be disappointed. Too much time is focused on the how and what of the shrinking process in the beginning, which is where most of the laughs are, only to spend the second-half socked squarely in the jaw by the desperate why of it all.
Downsizing is cleverly composed and it looks great. It's just not that fun. Some people like getting dressed up and engaging in lengthy philosophical debates. I count myself among them, occasionally anyway. But cinema comes without the opportunity for immediate response and works better with a more subtle stroke.
It's hard to do that with this sort of science fiction. The concept and even the story itself felt lifted from a 1950s novel. It's very much got the influence of Kurt Vonnegut, which is both wonderful and definitely relevant presently. However, Vonnegut and his contemporaries were able to achieve more depth and commentary. Maybe books are just better suited for stories like this? Ultimately, the story stops being about the butterfly effects of downsizing, and you almost forget they even did it. Maybe that's the point because we're all doomed anyway.
What about Kristin Wiig? She's funny, right? Yeah, sure. Spoilers ahead.
For inexplicable reasons, people need to be completely shaved before they're miniaturized. Kristin Wiig's character, Audrey, backs out before they get to her left eyebrow. She stays big and divorces Paul. Due to the settlement, he's not left with enough money to live rich. So he lives poor and small, not having gained much but losing a lot. Then he meets a Vietnamese activist refugee named Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) who was miniaturized against her will by an oppressive regime. She shows Paul what real poverty is like. He falls in love with her, obviously.
Then they find out that humanity really is doomed. Like seriously. The only hope is going to live with the Norwegians in a hippie commune cult deeply underground for the rest of their lives. In something like eight thousand years, their descendants will be able to start human civilization over again on the planet's surface. Or, you know, they could just live their lives and not worry about any of that, since they'll be long dead centuries before anything like that could even happen. Might as well make the most of what we've got now, large and small.
Sounds like a downer, but that was actually an uplifting ending, all things considered. Ngoc Lan basically tells Paul that living most of her life close to death has taught her to appreciate little details. Money is irrelevant. The future is nothing. Helping people now is what counts. It's a nice sentiment and one Paul has already learned by helping her help others.
The only real problem was that I didn't care whether Paul took it to heart or not. Matt Damon just did not bring him across. He comes off as an almost docile imbecile just short of offering a “Gee whiz” before drooling himself to sleep.
The story of Downsizing starts with the Norwegian scientists suggesting that downsizing could be a way to save the planet and the people. They have a three hundred year plan. It'd be nice to know what that plan would have looked like before it got bastardized by greed. Early on, it's clear that the people who choose to reduce themselves are only able to live richly because they're essentially living off the people who stay big. But the rest of the people don't really have a say in the matter. This core conundrum seems to be at the root of a lot of our partisan politics and world affairs. Maybe a professor will take the allegorical implications of this suggestion and write a book about it someday. Until that happens we can only watch and debate what we would do if Downsizing was a reality.