Film Review: Downsizing

by Chris Piper on December 22, 2017

Having your tiny cake and eating it, too

Matt Damon (l.) plays Paul Safranek and Jason Sudeikis plays Dave Johnson in Downsizing from Paramount Pictures.

“Going small” is not a goal often associated with the dreams of mainstream America, but what if going small meant maintaining a lavish, upper middle-class, suburban lifestyle with all the trimmings? This deceptively simple idea underlies Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s newest film, starring Matt Damon, Hong Chau, and Christoph Waltz. The film presents enough imagination and asks enough questions to launch a series, but it never figures out what it’s trying to say.

Payne’s films have always put middle-aged men in crisis, then given us somewhat ambiguous outcomes. In the vein of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Woody Allen, Payne salts his comedy with lots of pathos to present us with rich male characters navigating through significant crossroads.

In Downsizing, Matt Damon stands in not only for middle-aged American men, but, in fact, for our entire species, which today is addicted to McMansions, AFO-produced steaks, and weekly beers and brats with the boys. The environmental toll of this lifestyle goes unnoticed by its practitioners, who by day look the other way, and get to sleep at night with justifications that manifest issues won’t arise for generations.

Once again Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor take us back to the underappreciated and overfed Midwest. Damon’s Paul Safranek is an in-house occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, and seems committed to his job of helping people to perform better with butcher knives or computer mice, but he and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) have hit a marital snag on their way up the lifestyle ladder.

Meanwhile, their world is slowly awakening to the miracle of the Smalls, people who have voluntarily had themselves shrunken to about six inches high. The call of Leisureland, a planned Smalls community beckons. Luxury living on a shoestring budget, pitches Senior Product Specialist Jeff Lonowski (Neil Patrick Harris) and his stage wife Laura (Laura Dern).

Environmental salvation takes a back seat to the dream of trading up to the good, miniaturized life. Payne is mesmerized by the process of shrinking a person, and large stretches of time are spent following that process in minute detail — too much detail, as it turns out — for, in the end, big people are little people, an idea we’ve seen on the screen many times before.

Inevitably, the slow motion catastrophe of our “changing” planet becomes the film’s major concern; we’re taken to a Nordic village of Smalls who plan to seal themselves deep in a mine, await inevitable collapse, and then “reseed” the planet with their smaller and more efficient selves. Ultimately Paul must choose between living on a dying planet with those he loves or providing genetic material for a hoped for, more perfect future planet.

If this all sounds like a bit much, it is. The artistic and political possibilities of “Smalls” easily outlast the film’s 135 minute runtime. These little people are a large and expansive metaphor for any number of things, but Payne doggedly sticks to using them as a way to explore human greed, as well as revisiting old ideas about the impossibility of utopias. There are so many possibilities that Downsizing really should have been a series, so each idea could get its due, and the rush of characters could be better fleshed out.

Payne doesn’t have a lot of experience with the political film. With the brilliant exception of Citizen Ruth, he has stuck to themes of personal change and finding belief in a far-from-perfect world. Here, though his characters easily mouth well-worn ideas of population explosion and global warming, Payne is on much more solid ground when he sticks to his oft-used technique of crashing troubled people into one another, and observing what happens.

Also of note is an extremely puzzling performance by Hong Chau as a Small Vietnamese refugee, and the magnificent scene-stealer Christoph Waltz as Euro trash hell-bent on bringing the Continent’s biggest party to Leisureland.

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Downsizing opens today in select Bay Area theaters.

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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