Downsizing

ATonally, it is a shambles, and script-wise it often feels like a poorly disguised environmental sustainability lecture.

But for all its flaws, it is nonetheless a surprisingly insightful and high-concept movie, whose finer moments will probably be lost on many of the unsuspecting audience members it tricks into watching it.

See, the trailer for Downsizing is just one great big fake-out. The premise is real, but what the movie does when the set-up is completed is, well, not quite what the trailer prepares you for.

With global overpopulation rapidly reaching crisis point, Norwegian scientists pioneer a bold new technology that shrinks humans down to about five inches tall, significantly reducing their food consumption, waste creation and overall environmental footprint.

Entire miniature cities form and, since your big-world-money stretches a lot further in the miniature world, most of those people who “go small” are able to live like billionaires.

This is tempting enough for Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) Safranek, who see it as a way to save the planet while also making the most of their modest savings.

But once shrunk down to size, Paul finds life in miniature to be far from perfect.

Now, the trailer leads you to believe that what follows is some high-spirited situational comedy full of gags about giant bottles of vodka and life inside a doll’s house. And the first two acts certainly seem to be setting things up for exactly that kind of movie.

But then it lurches off in a completely unexpected direction and becomes a very different movie. And it is so much the better for it.

Tonally this thing is all over the place, shifting between farce, satire, dark comedy, drama, sit-com, climate change activism, just to name a few shifts. And I’m not sure exactly why, but I found this tonal mish-mash strangely endearing and compelling.

I guess, in a way, the tonal inconsistency and tangential plot mirror Paul’s journey. He thinks he is signing up for something easy and fun, and ends up getting something a lot more complicated for reasons beyond his control.

And as a viewer I certainly got a taste of this same feeling: expecting one thing, getting another, and just having to shrug and say “Well, OK then, let’s see where this goes”.

The story certainly spends a lot of time labouring its theme about the doomsday theory, how the time is coming when there will be too many people on the planet, resources will dwindle, climate change will become catastrophic, etc.

And while it certainly makes you think, it does feel very heavyhanded and lecture-like at times.lexander Payne’s new movie, “Downsizing,” is three movies in one—a passable one, a terrific one, and a terrible one. They’re unified in the realization of the movie’s big idea, but the movie’s straining after a big idea is its overarching weakness. Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek (stress on the second syllable), an Omaha occupational therapist whose life has got away from him. He wanted to become a surgeon but, owing to family trouble, couldn’t stay in school. He spends time and money caring for his ailing mother (Jayne Houdyshell); he and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), can’t afford to move from their cramped house into a larger one. That’s one film—the middle-class blues of sufficiency without pleasure—and its view of the Safranek household is gentle, warm, and thin. It’s only adequate, hardly a patch on Payne’s earlier portraits of his fellow-Nebraskans, because, here, it’s merely a setup and a pretext for a comedic drama that wrenches Paul out of the practicalities of his place and into the realm of fantasy in what is the movie’s raison d’être.
“Downsizing” is a science-fiction film, and, even before even introducing the Safraneks, it opens with scientists in Norway who have devised a technique for shrinking humans to about five inches tall. The scientists promote the technology on environmental grounds: by shrinking people, the human footprint on the planet will be greatly diminished. The scientists display the efficacy of their technology with some self-testing—one of the leaders of the project has shrunken himself and others—and the team demonstrates that four years’ worth of the entire production of garbage from thirty-six shrunken people fits into a single full-sized trash bag. (They also demonstrate that downsized humans can reproduce.)
Thus, Payne launches the exhilarating third of “Downsizing,” the virtual documentary about the process and experience of shrinking, or, as the characters call it (repurposing Steve Martin’s 1977 catchphrase), “getting small.” In a ten-year flash ahead, downsizing has become a widespread practice, as Paul and Audrey discover when a couple of high-school classmates show up at a reunion as small people. Payne and the film’s co-writer, Jim Taylor, delight in devising the odd particulars of a miniaturized human realm, from its virtues to its risks to its corporate implications, and the joy of the movie is in its details. They giddily imagine the demands of “small” life and the strangeness of its details, such as bus travel in terrarium-like glass boxes, which are stacked up, alongside full-sized passengers, like so many luxury cells or compartments.
The downsized live in large domed facilities that protect them from full-sized birds and insects and from solar radiation, which disproportionately affects the downsized. These facilities function as permanent vacation colonies or retirement homes that match the environmental advantage of downsizing with a personal incentive to do so; when people are shrunk, their wealth is increased, by a factor of about eighty-two. The Safraneks’ net worth of $152,000, if they downsize, would become the equivalent of approximately $12.5 million. (The colony that they’re considering is aptly named Leisureland; the sales pitch shows small people living in mini-mansions that resemble dollhouses.) They decide to do it.
The process of shrinking works only with living tissue, which is why, to prepare for the procedure, an enema is administered, all hair is shaved off, and all fillings removed from teeth. In the processing center, a battalion of natural-sized dentists works on patients before downsizing, and a battalion of small dentists gets immediately to work on the newly downsized upon arrival—and the story reveals the disaster that would await anyone who got downsized with fillings left intact. (The movie also displays the aftermath of the process—when nurses lift the newly small from beds to boxes with spatulas.)
Yet, while Paul is being downsized, Audrey bails. He arrives in Leisureland alone, only to find out that Audrey is divorcing him. (There’s bitter comedy when a truck rolls up to small Paul’s house with his wedding ring, a keepsake that now resembles a solid-gold hula hoop.) Unhappily alone, his expected wealth sapped by his divorce settlement, he takes a dull job and lives a lonely life until he meets a neighbor, Dušan Mirković (Christoph Waltz), a Serbian party animal and wheeler-dealer who, with an unctuously Mephistophelian urging, pulls Paul into his penthouse pleasure dome.
But, from his sudden contact with the upper crust of Leisureland, Paul is suddenly connected to its downtrodden and despised as well. Awakening the next morning in Dušan’s trash-strewn pad, Paul sees an Asian woman cleaning the apartment laboriously because of a severe limp caused by an ill-fitting prosthetic leg. He tells the woman, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), that he can adjust it, and he goes home with her to do so. Rather than taking one of the free-to-use cars available to such Leisureland residents as Paul, she takes a bus—which, unlike the rest of the microcosm, is filled with people of color. Ngoc Lan and Paul ride to a remote neighborhood near the wall of the dome. Then, in a dramatic coup of design, the bus goes through a surreptitious hole in the wall: Ngoc Lan lives in a huge, overcrowded complex of poor people that’s situated just outside the barrier—the very definition of precariousness, inasmuch as the warren-like complex is unprotected against full-sized animals and the elements.
It quickly becomes clear that the permanent comfort of Leisureland hasn’t actually obviated the political realm but only exiled it beyond its walls. The third strand of the drama—the weakest strand—thrusts Paul into that realm and, literally, out of his bubble. The result is a sentimental sermonizing that reeks of second-hand assumptions and unquestioned stereotypes even as it reflects, sincerely but clumsily, a real political fury.
Paul’s bond with Ngoc Lan—a former Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will, as political punishment, and who lost her leg as a result of a dangerous escape to the United States—deepens along with his involvement in her community. But Dušan and his associate, Konrad (Udo Kier), need Paul’s help with a business deal (a drolly innocuous bit of smuggling) that will take them to Norway—to the original colony of “smalls” and to the scientist who invented the technology—and Ngoc Lan persuades them to take her on the journey as well. There, the scientist explains his mission: a methane leak in the Antarctic will cause a mass human extinction, and he and his colony have constructed a deep subterranean shelter, sealed off from the surface of Earth and stocked with supplies for a self-perpetuating society, that will serve as a sort of Noah’s Ark to preserve and regenerate a vestige of the species.

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