Downsizing – Film Review
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau
From “The Incredible Shrinking Man” to “Fantastic Voyage” and “The Borrowers” to “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” the idea of miniature people has held a huge appeal for Hollywood movie makers. In the latest variation on this theme director, Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants), tries to give a contemporary social relevance to the genre by proposing “downsizing”, shrinking humans to a height of five inches, as a solution to the overcrowding we face on our planet. But what starts off as an amusing social satire seems to lose its way as it tries to punch above its weight in a muddle of pseudo political and philosophical arguments.
When we meet Paul Safranek (Matt Damon in his all-American boy mode), he is looking after his aged mother, encouraging her to eat, and struggling with a dull day job. Ten years later he is still living in the same house, doing the same boring work, and having similar conversations now with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Realising that they will never be able to afford to upgrade and live a life similar to their more prosperous friends, they decide to “downsize” and move to “Leisure Land,” a luxurious micro-community in the desert. Though the discovery of the downsizing process had been developed some years previously by a Norwegian scientist as a way of saving the resources of our planet and the original “little people” had made the change for ideological reasons, Paul and Audrey are more influenced by the financial benefits: while $10,000 isn’t exactly a fortune for a “big person”, if you are consuming minuscule portions of food etc. it is enough to provide with comfort for the rest of your life.
Arriving at Leisure Land the two prepare for the shrinking – all body hair has to be shaved off and fillings removed. However, when he awakes after the process Paul discovers that his wife had backed out at the last minute and that he is left to struggle on his own in this community of little people. We should be moved by his plight but by this stage in the film there are so many unanswered questions that it is hard to concentrate on the actual plot. Where do all the perfectly made minuscule kitchen implements and home furnishings come from? Why is Paul now working in a call centre? Why is the American community protected by netting against birds and insects who might see the little people as their next meal, whereas the Norwegian community is open to the elements?
Payne has tried to make his film politically pertinent by introducing arguments about climate change and the refugee crisis, and showing that this Utopia is a reflection of the outside world, with its haves and have-nots. But how the slum section in this tiny world, inhabited mainly by Latinos, came about is another element that is never explained. It is only when Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese environmental and political activist who was shrunk against her will that the film starts to come to life. Chau is excellent as the assertive, demanding house cleaner who refuses to be beaten down by her situation and who gives Paul back a purpose in life. In fact, it would be hard to criticise any of the performances. Damon is his usual reliable self and Christoph Waltz as the noisy playboy neighbour adds a lot of humour to the story.
If Payne had been satisfied with telling a tale or was clearer in the message he is trying to communicate this would be a far more enjoyable movie. Instead, he seems to try to force an unfocused political relevance onto the film and the resultant jumble of ideas confuses rather than clarifies. There is a lot to admire, great performances and totally engaging and original sequences but a less ambitious approach would probably have produced a much better film and been more successful in communicating the director’s vision.