Downsizing, the new film by Alexander Payne, is highly interesting if uneven. Payne and co-author Jim Taylor start with an intriguing premise-that the problems of overpopulation can be overcome by shrinking humans to a size of around six inches. The cost of living decreases as well, making “small” individuals into overnight millionaires. There is only one hitch- the process is irreversible.
Enter Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a struggling occupational therapist, and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Going “small” appears to represent the answer to their financial woes. After seeing a sales pitch where Laura Lonowski (Laura Dern) shows off her $83 diamond bracelet, the Safraneks sign up.
Payne has a great time with the sequence where Paul undergoes the procedure. Attendants shave his hair, pull his teeth, and handle his newly small body with an instrument that looks like a spatula. Once he wakes from the anesthesia, Paul learns Audrey had a change of heart and declined the procedure.
The newly single Paul gamely sets up housekeeping in his tiny McMansion. Hard-partying neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz) tries to take him in hand, but Paul is ill suited to this life style. He finds more satisfaction in his friendship with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee with a prosthetic leg. Ngoc lives in poverty behind a border wall separating the immigrants from the pampered “smalls”. This gentle, philanthropic woman appears to have the answers Paul has been seeking all along.
At this point, Payne moves the setting and introduces a pending environmental crisis that threatens to pull the narrative off course. Payne keeps Paul’s concerns essentially local during the earlier part of the film, so his abrupt shift to global matters seems an odd choice. Although Downsizing recovers for its finale, it comes perilously close to imploding during its third act.
Damon makes a wonderful tiny Everyman, while Waltz takes on his role with subversive glee. Hong Chau (Inherent Vice, Treme) does a good job with a problematic role. Ngoc comes off as a stereotype early in the film, although the character acquires more depth as Downsizing progresses.
The plot elements of a border wall and immigrants might prompt audiences to guess Payne and Taylor created this story fairly recently. In fact, pre-production on the film began in 2009, but had to be halted for Payne’s films The Descendants and Nebraska.
At a TIFF Q and A, Payne said he intended Downsizing to be a combination of his more political films (Citizen Ruth, Election) and films about “some schlub trying to find himself” (About Schmidt, Sideways). In the end, politics give way to a heart like that of Frank Capra or Preston Sturges. Guy gets girl and finds the answers that were within him all along.
Theme: Ecological Solutions
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