DOWNSIZING is a film that cries out to be admired. Pondered. Parsed. Philosophical propositions and social commentary flit by in a mad whirl of arch observation and deadpan dea as we are invited to consider a veritable cornucopia of topics, all eminently worthy of examination. The class struggle and the human propensity for prejudice; the economics of debt and the law of unintended consequences; good intentions and ecological collapse; the depths of despair tugging at the desire to create a life with meaning as well as, or perhaps instead of, material goods.
Yeah. It’s a lot.
Certainly, one can’t fault Alexander Payne for his lack of ambition. He’s made a film that is interesting in concept, and one that is visually playful as it satirizes modern life with an uncertain tone and a main character who is essentially passive.
That would be Matt Damon. He’s Paul Safranek, a good guy living in the near future who has given up his own dreams in favor of pleasing others. When his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), longs for a larger home than they can afford on his salary as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks (Payne’s default city), he starts to seriously consider the drastic, irreversible, step of downsizing. Developed by an Norwegian scientist in an effort to, ahem, minimize humanity’s impact on the environment, the process reduces people to five inches in height. It also proportionately increases their net worth, with a ratio of roughly $1 to $1000, thus giving the Safranek’s the chance to live a life of insouciant luxury in a planned community of the downsized. What could go wrong?
Starting with Paul’s brush with decadence that leaves him cold. There’s another brush with a defiantly decadent neighbor (impishly amoral Christoph Waltz) with shady business dealings, and Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau in a star-making performance), a tough, no-nonsense Vietnamese refugee who was downsized as a punishment for protesting in her native land, and whose escape to America, which cost her part of her leg, didn’t dull her aggressive personality or sense of justice.
Payne has an astute eye for the artifice of the absurd. Hence Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern as Leisure Land shills performing a cynically calculated pitch comprised of blatant hokum that nonetheless dazzles the prospective downsizers with its visions of mansions, diamond jewelry and three outposts of a popular dining franchise. Balance that against Ngoc Lan brusquely dismissing the laziness of the Leisure Landers in a damning monologue that addresses our social reality as well as the cinematic fantasy in which she lives.
The story, though, roams and roves, giving us three separate episodes only tangentially related to one another in tone and mood. They also go so many places that the audience may find itself experiencing the cinematic equivalent of whiplash with the abrupt transitions. From a portrait of middle-class distress and tribe-like hostility to the newly small, to the complacent idleness of wealth, to the hobbit-like original downsizing colony nestled amid the fjords of Norway, the shifts are disquieting, leaping from one premise to the next without doing justice to any one of them. What of Paul’s old high school friend (Jason Sudeikis), who preceded him to Leisure Land? What gives with the wacko Norwegian lady who all but cackles as she tells Paul that she dreamed of his arrival the night before? After the detailed examination of Damon undergoing the downsizing process, shaved eyebrows, recreated dental work, and an enema, such short shrift in the ancillary stories and characters is irksome. So is having the downsized voices sound full-sized to normal-sized ears, as though tiny vocal cords would not resonate with a different pitch and timbre. It’s a, ahem, small thing, but considering all the minutiae of being made small, why leave that out?
DOWNSIZING aches with noble intentions and laudable aspirations. Watching it fail to come to fruition creates a similar ache in the viewer.