Alexander Payne has been making movies about middle-aged, average American men who feel small for most of his career (from Election through Nebraska). When he’s stepping out of his comfort zone for futuristic whimsy in Downsizing he’s still making a movie about a middle-aged, average American man who feels small—and indeed gets even smaller—but the scope of the project reveals a sweeter side of Payne.
Before the premiere at this year’s Venice Film Festival (starting today) Payne has described the project as similar to Black Mirror, and though there are some situations that mirror those bleak technology fables, Downsizing is definitely a throwback to the style of 40s Hollywood films that aim to find hope in humanity. It’s very earnest. There are some darker undertones but its main heroes are innately good people and their journey helps them to continue to do good things for others. The largeness of the journey, think something to the scale of Jonathan Swift’s classic novel Gulliver’s Travels, is what makes this is a studio film in modern day Hollywood, but Downsizing is distinctly a classical film that puts Matt Damon in the Jimmy Stewart role of your average decent person who learns that being decent is all that one really needs.
Damon plays Paul Safronek, who quit med school to take care of his sick mother in Omaha and though he never became a surgeon he helps working class people as an on-site physician who assists workers with their basic muscle and joint pains and teaches them how to position their bodies every day so as to not do long-term damage. His job is to prevent lawsuits but Payne is careful to show Paul’s humanitarian side, that he’s genuinely trying to make workers more comfortable in their day to day and through the rest of their lives. His friends who completed med school have more money, larger houses, better clothes and seemingly better lives. Meanwhile, Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) can’t afford to buy a house on their own and they live in his childhood home after his mom has passed away.
Where’s the sci-fi in this? Scientists in Norway have discovered how to shrink human cells so that a person’s mass and matter can be “downsized” just five-inches tall. The Scandinavian scientists present this new human scale as the answer to the biggest threat of humankind: overpopulation. By reducing scale, humans can reduce their carbon footprint, their consumption, their waste, their space and the planet can continue sustaining life on Earth before we do irreversible damage that would wipe out our entire species.
However, the scientist’s good intentions are instantly warped by the very same desires that push human consumption. Within five years, though only three percent of the world’s population has undergone the transformation, word trickles out that to become small is to instantly become wealthy beyond your wildest dreams. These communities don’t live in the wild like Gulliver’s Lilliputians; they live in bubble communities manufactured for profit. Paul and Audrey visit one in New Mexico. A shrunken couple (Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) play act a sitcom-like pitch in which the husband boasts about his huge house while his wife takes a bubble bath and talks about her day of buying jewelry. The husband is about to get upset but then learns that the total haul of new earrings, matching bracelet and necklace only set them back $83. The crowd of big people ooh and ahh and Paul and Audrey learn that their combined Big People equity of $125,000 would equate to $12.5 million for the rest of their lives if they downsized. Thus Leisureland, as the compound is called, is just that. A place for endless activities, Leisureland taps into lifestyles of the rich and famous, for the instantly rich.
Payne has a lot of fun setting up this world. Restaurant and clothing chains are instantly implemented. The homes, though huge, lack charm because they literally were put up overnight (with suburbs that toss around Native American and Spanish words as their namesake, an aware nod at the cultural appropriation that’s used to sell brand new and bland American suburbs, as well as the American history of only acknowledging its darker history through naming things after those they’ve displaced). When Paul is dropped off by his guide to his new castle, the driver says “thanks for saving the planet” and Payne has already laid out that the only way masses amounts of humans will do something good is if they receive something even better in return. It’s hollow and it opens up some great satirical asides.
There are lots of sight gags for the process of becoming small, so much so, that on the surface, Downsizing feels like a live-action, adult Pixar movie (except with full frontal male nudity). Despite these imaginative moments, inside Downsizing there’s the beating heart of a Frank Capra movie. It’s static and fairly on-the-nose with lessons learned, but it’s sweet.
Matthew Broderick’s disgraced teacher narrated toward the end of Election, while Payne focused his camera on the genitals of a caveman, “What happens to a man when he loses everything? Everything he’s worked for, everything he’s believed in.” Paul eventually lives in Leisureland alone. Wiig’s surprising early exit makes a different type of movie. Even though it puts Payne back in his comfort zone of following an average man who’s life hasn’t turned out the way he thought it would—it also signals that Downsizing is going to take some refreshingly unexpected turns.
More importantly, Wiig’s exit allows for Paul to experience some of the setbacks of this society as he’s now completely isolated, alone, and where no one can even pronounce his last name correctly, nor can he work his previous profession because of bureaucratic state-line reasons, so he’s entirely a blank slate. And as a blank slate he meets new characters, such as the hedonistic Italian party-favor smuggler, Dusan, (Christoph Waltz) who throws epic soirees for other aged Euro party boys (any time there’s a movie that includes an Udo Kier dance scene, something is okay with the universe for at least one moment in time).
When Paul passes out from indulgence at one of Dusan’s parties he meets a Vietnamese woman who’d gone to prison for her environmental protests and was downsized against her will so that the government could get rid of her. With Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, finally given a larger role after being absolutely fabulous in Inherent Vice), Payne gives us a second hero amongst bad humans and Paul and Ngoc Lan’s different reasons for wanting to help others lights the way for the rest of the film.
There are a ton of pointed observations in Payne and Jim Taylor’s script, such as how downsizing hurts the economy through tax credits and funneling profits to an entirely new infrastructure; opposing religions use of downsizing to thwart their enemy; plus how a black market for goods would exist on a global scale and most importantly, that human beings who are driven by their own selfishness will replicate the same mistakes on a small scale that they do on a large scale. Class structure is immediately replicated by the new wealthy because their intentions of downsizing wasn’t to save life on Earth but to be as rich as they never could have been if they were larger. (Ngoc Lan lives in what’s essentially the third world under a roof. Further emphasizing that Downsizing is much more macro than it is microscopic.)
Though Downsizing has a lot of great observations and big ideas about the world that it’s creating and the economic and political ramifications of human beings who are always comparing themselves to others, the script sputters with character development. Ngoc Lan becomes the most engaging character in Downsizing, and Chau doesn’t allow the broken English to slip into an ugly caricature, instead she owns it and uses the corners of her performance (her tears, her humor) to build a full character who steals the movie from the average American male that Payne is focusing on. Not that Damon is bad; he’s just not very defined outside of being average but decent. And the less said about Christoph Waltz phoning in another Christoph Waltz wide-grin performance, the better. (Same for Jason Sudeikis, who’s just here to remind us that Damon is way better than the company he keeps.)
Downsizing is a film that is at its best when it’s forward thinking, but it feels very sterile with its human interactions because the world has been built so large it has very little time to define the tiny people outside of very broad strokes. The characters are thusly very old-fashioned in idealist vs. hedonist and the tone never fully settles. (I’d rather continue on the conveyer belt of ideas and worlds rather than spend much time with most of the characters.) The mish-mash of Downsizing’s world with its method of storytelling doesn’t work entirely, but there are moments of fabulous satire. And sometimes, it is nice to step outside of bleak futures and be reminded that the future would look less bleak if there were more Pauls and Ngoc Lans in the world. And that’s something we can all work on regardless of size.
Downsizing had its World Premiere at the Venice Film Festival in Italy; it will be released in theaters on December 22, 2017.