It’s curious that so bold a film as Alexander Payne’s apocalyptic cli-fi satire Downsizing fails because of a fundamental lack of nerve. Yet here we are. Payne has dared to craft the rare studio feature to take seriously the inevitability of climate change, to pose hard questions about the way we live now, to examine the fundamental inequalities that make American comforts possible. This is done, at first, with spirit and vigor in the terrifically funny first half-hour or so, as Payne lays out his science-fiction premise: Some Norwegian scientists have hit on a method of shrinking humans to Smurf height, a breakthrough they announce at a press conference complete with a tiny man at a tiny podium lecturing from atop a normal podium. Their goal, of course, is to reduce the strain we each place upon this planet’s resources. That press conference peaks with the revelation that a colony of tiny people has subsisted in a dome for a year — and that their combined yield of waste fits into half a Hefty bag.
Better still are the scenes set a decade later, when this new technology has been fully commoditized and sold to America. Retirement as a tiny person is much more affordable than retirement for the full-sized, and a cavernous McMansion for the small costs a fraction of what one does for the large. So, of course, Middle America buys into the shrinking fad, trading in its nest eggs to settle down in plush and tacky domed suburbs the size of a Nebraska Furniture Mart, the ultimate gated communities, all golf courses and Tony Roma’s Steakhouses and jewelry stores where diamonds enough to dazzle on a tiny person’s ring will run you less than 80 bucks. Rather than saving the world, Payne’s little folks are reducing themselves so that their portion sizes look bigger.
The science-fiction premise is a leap for the director of Nebraska, Election and About Schmidt. But it’s also a fit: In those films, he depicted a pointedly humdrum Midwestern ordinariness of highways and Godfather’s Pizzas. The Lilliputian resort of Downsizing is essentially what many of the naifs and drips in Payne’s movies imagine the good life would be. The film’s sharpest sequence comes when Payne’s latest naif/drip (Matt Damon) and his wife (Kristen Wiig), still full-sized, visit the tiny community’s sales department. They’re considering “getting small” — and securing a comfortable lifestyle despite their debts. But they’ve entered a fully operational Death Star of American salesmanship, one where all the cannons are trained on them. Payne stages a riotous infomercial-like stage show and a deceptively cheery personal sales pitch from a closer who’s only too happy to run your numbers for you and talk about which plan best suits your needs. It’s perfectly, terribly familiar, the experience of anyone who has ever sat through a time-share presentation to get a free breakfast. Payne’s arch everyday deadpan edges into new modes here: Swiftian satire and Brooksian sight gags, all sharply realized. (The production design, cinematography and visual effects are all excellent.)
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Payne’s insight is that any tech that changes or could save the world will be implemented according to the structures of our current society. So, Damon’s character discovers, once he gets small, that a big little house filled with nothing gets pretty lonely. And then, after attending a Euro-glam molly-party with a neighbor (Christoph Waltz) who is much more interesting than him, our naif finally notices the immigrant cleaning crews who mop up the messes made by the dome’s happy buyers. The plot contrives — much too slowly — to open our hero’s eyes, to reveal to him the persistence of inequality, to teach him a new selflessness. But this is where the movie fails, miserably so. Any thinking person watching Downsizing is ten steps ahead of Damon’s blinkered shlub, and watching him piece together the bare facts about how this future America works — and how our America works today — makes for a frustrating sit. The film’s lead is far and away its least interesting character, and Damon dials back every watt of his charisma or wit.
As Downsizing wears on — and I do mean wears — what becomes dismayingly apparent is that Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, have made a mistake quite like that of the tiny people they’re parodying. They’ve not brought fresh assumptions to a new age. They (or their producers and financiers) seem still to believe that the only way this story can connect with audiences is if it’s another Story of a White Dude Played by a Celebrity. At the midway point, they introduce a potentially fascinating new character, Hong Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident whose government shrank her. Now she works as a cleaning woman, living a long bus ride from the dome’s heart, in a tiny slum, where she treats the less able residents to leftover food from the Olive Gardens of the promised land.
Chau is the film’s most vital presence, playing a commanding yet practical woman who speaks out stern commands in heavily accented English that some people at the screening I attended snickered along with like it’s meant to be funny. (It’s not, I don’t think — the character is written with a dull earnestness but performed with go-for-broke gusto.) Unfortunately, we only know her character through the Damon character’s perspective, which renders her saintly and mysterious, an exoticized guide to what the world’s really like. It’s like if Election’s Tracy Flick, that determined go-getter seizing her place in a man’s world, had devoted herself to introducing Matthew Broderick’s dope of a high school teacher to introductory feminism. All through Downsizing’s dreary back half, I kept wondering, “What if, after the first half-hour, the point of view had switched to Chau’s character, and we were watching her make sense of his world?”
Damon’s character goes home with her, for story reasons, and soon is dedicating his life to great causes, too. The climax finds the duo — along with Waltz’s hard-partying Euro snoot — journeying to Norway and the original tiny colony to contemplate the inevitable end of the world. Turns out it’s too late for the shrinking of Americans to make much difference. There’s an interesting question teased in the final scenes about whether an individual should work to secure humanity’s future or whether we should devote ourselves to caring for each other in the here and now. The choice is stark and false: We all can and should do both, every damn day.