Review by Thomas Tunstall
When scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to overpopulation, Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in order to get small and move to a new downsized community — a choice that triggers life-changing adventures.
“Downsizing” is certainly another interesting film from an interesting director, Alexander Payne – perhaps best known for “Sideways” and “The Descendants.” Yet, that is a very long way from anything resembling a hearty endorsement, even though “Downsizing” certainly has its merits.
The movie begins simply enough. A scientist comes up with a breakthrough invention that downsizes living organisms – and just might save the planet as a result. Meanwhile, a Midwestern occupational therapist, played by Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, struggles to make ends meet, at first while caring for his aged, ailing mother.
Later Safranek finds himself trying to appease his wife, played by Kristen Wiig, who longs for a more affluent – albeit unaffordable lifestyle. As push comes to shove, the only feasible solution appears to be downsizing, which will make the couple comparatively wealthy in the process. Happily, the Safranek’s are able to take solace in the fact that their decision to downsize is also a big plus for Planet Earth. Moral dilemma solved!
Of course, if things were going to be that simple, there wouldn’t be a movie. Not to worry – events go awry, but not in any science fiction horror story manner. To the credit of screenwriters Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, how the science affects people is always at the center of this parable.
Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran is delightful as a Vietnamese refugee who refuses to abandon her humanity in the face of continual adversity. Her role as the conscience of Paul Safranek will not easily be forgotten by anyone who sees the film.
It’s not an overstatement to say that Christoph Waltz might have stolen the whole show had it not been for Chau’s performance. Even so, Waltz, as Matt Damon’s next-door neighbor – aptly named Dusan – turns in another over-the-top performance. Dusan is proof-positive that smarmy excess can come in all sizes.
Deep into the film, Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen, inventor of the downsizing process, intones that man has been around a mere 200,000 years. Contrast that with alligators, which have been in existence for 200 MILLION years, yet have a brain the size of a walnut. Big brains, it seems, may not be enough to save the day.
The film is nothing if not ambitious. The director tries to mix in some sugar – in the form of frequent humor – to make the unpalatable medicine of the message go down easier, with uneven results. In some ways, “Downsizing” is reminiscent of another Matt Damon vehicle “Elysium,” which also addresses inequality and polarized segments of society. With both films, the story struggles under the weight of the moral and unfortunately fails to avoid a heavy-handedness that grinds the audience down.
Some of the film’s best moments come by way of all too brief references about how downsizing is deleterious to the overall economy. In one segment, cable news channels bemoan that the fall-off in consumer demand is depressing GDP and that a decrease in housing demand is causing home prices to drop – all due to the downsizing phenomenon. In another scene, an inebriated bar patron grouses about how few taxes the “little” people pay because they don’t spend nearly as much as “regular” or “full-sized” people.
Unfortunately, these issues are never pursued further. I think it would have been interesting to explore why economic progress apparently hinges upon maintaining unsustainably high levels of consumption by ever-greater numbers of people. This sort of economic logic – which pervades financial news networks and public policy discussions – is ripe for more in-depth, cerebral scrutiny.
Howard Hawks famously described the attributes of a good movie: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.” Sometimes I wonder if moviemaking might be just that simple (though clearly easier said than done). Unfortunately, “Downsizing” contains one of those bad scenes (though I suspect some would disagree). I will term it simply as “The Last Sunset” scene, where Dr. Asbjornsen’s colony of downsized humans are about to retreat underground in the face of global environmental collapse. The painfully long series of framed, stoic faces of the crowd watching the sun slip into the horizon – while intended to be moving – merely comes off as a maudlin gesture.
The great questions that the movie implies too often are not asked, much less answered. Where are we going as a species, given the path we blithely walk down currently? Has society sufficiently reflected upon the endgame for humanity based on the way we live? Or about the way institutions currently operate at our behest – either tacitly or explicitly? “Downsizing” starts out with great promise but unfortunately, the film never really seems to find its way out of an admittedly complicated morass.
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