Have you ever wondered how your life would be if you were irreversibly miniaturized to be five inches tall in order to help solve the overpopulation problem? Well, me neither, but that is the idea behind Downsizing. Directed by Alexander Payne (Election, The Descendants, Nebraska) and written by Jim Taylor (Sideways), Downsizing is a rom-com fused with an environmental drama. It explores a world in which some of the population is little and some of the population is big, and even though it is uneven, it is bold in its own absurdity.
Environmentalist Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen developed the downsizing procedure which would miniaturize people to be five inches tall. From an evolutionary perspective, the idea of downsizing is idiotic as smaller species are more vulnerable. If we suddenly became smaller than birds, we would need an increased level of protection from our surrounding environment. However, from an environmental perspective, this idea makes sense because if humans shrunk, their waste and energy consumption would shrink as well, thus reducing pollution and halting imminent climate change catastrophes. Humans would only undergo this downsizing procedure if it was beneficial to them, and the catch to downsizing is that miniature people run on a separate economy in which their needs are significantly smaller, but their money is worth the same.
The film follows the story of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig), a couple who is struggling to make ends meet. Paul Safranek is a nice guy who – like many people – wants to undergo the procedure in order to afford the lifestyle he never could as his regular-sized self. As a couple, the Safraneks decide to undergo the procedure together and to use their savings to buy a mansion in Leisureland – the most luxurious and popular community for “small people” (they make sure to have Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern rave about it so we know it is legit). But, that is when the troubles begin. On the day of the procedure, Audrey changes her mind and bails on Paul. As a small person his priorities shift; now with money and without his wife, he is left with little to do. The film then turns into a rom-com that follows Paul navigating the miniature world and his search for meaning. Everything changes when Paul meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) through his eccentric neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Ngoc Lan is a Vietnamese activist who needs his medical help. The film then turns into a humanitarian, environmental exploration of the social dynamics and economics of the miniature world.
Downsizing is funny, quirky and entertaining, but, as a film, it has many issues. The main issue of the film is that it does not know what it is. It tries to be a funny rom-com with an environmental message, but those two threads do not blend well when the script decides to ignore the most interesting aspects of the downsizing idea to focus on a conflict that does little to develop the characters. To put it in different words, Paul Safrenik starts and ends as a nice guy who likes to help others and learns very little about himself through this journey. There is no character arc for him, Audrey, Ngoc Lan or even for the eccentric neighbor Dusan. The film introduces a final conflict in a dysfunctional way that squanders every plot that it bothered to set up. Why even show Paul’s dying mom in the beginning to then decide to never pick up that thread again? Why mention Dusan’s side businesses and hint at its implications if we are never going to explore them?
These issues do not necessarily mean the film is not worth watching. Even if Matt Damon’s lead performance is average at best, he gives us a likable character who delivers some good scenes. Hong Chau is excellent and downright hilarious in the film; already nabbing SAG and Golden Globes nominations, she plays a complex character that shows a wide range of emotions and essentially gives life to the film. Kristen Wiig is painfully underutilized but provides some key moments. Christoph Waltz plays his usual comedic, but a bit devilish character that is never bad to see on the big screen. The film is uneven, but there are some scenes worth the money – particularly the one showcasing the downsizing procedure, Dusan’s rave party and every single scene with Hong Chau in it. Most importantly, the script toys with the right ideas as it explores how society would react when faced with a nonideal solution to overpopulation. As we head to an uncertain future, where climate change is sure to affect our lives, we cannot help but wonder what would happen if society were presented with the chance to actually help.
Downsizing ponders the right set of ambitious questions but provides few answers; it is a joyful ride that settles for the superficial. Yet, it is one of the boldest films of the year, and it shows that Paramount was willing to take risks in 2017. How did they sell this movie idea? With an environmental theme, the film babbles about a lot, but discusses little. But, even in its absurdity, it leaves us wondering… Would humans settle for an inconvenient solution to solve the planet’s most imperative problems?
Director: Alexander Payne
Writer: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael
Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Cristoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Margo Martindale, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris, Niecy Nash
Composer: Rolfe Kent
Editor: Kevin Tent