Downsizing is the seventh feature film from American writer / director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants). It takes an irresistible sci-fi notion, populates it with Payne’s typically rich characters, and to top it all off, decides to say a thing or two in the process. In other words, it’s absolute magic.
Norwegian scientist, Dr Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), makes a historic scientific breakthrough. He discovers a way to shrink organic matter down to a fraction of its original size. This irreversible shrinking process, or ‘downsizing’, is used in a bid to combat overpopulation. Participants who downsize are given incentives. Not only are they helping the planet, but their quality of life increases exponentially; their smaller footprint means they can live in far greater luxury.
Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) decide to downsize, after struggling with student debts and mortgage rejection. They visit the ‘small’, tented community of Leisure Land, slightly reminiscent of the domed utopia from Logan’s Run, where they witness first-hand the beautiful landscaping and exciting recreational possibilities. They soon realise they would be considerably better off there.
After downsizing and moving to Leisure Land, Paul strikes up some unlikely friendships. The first, with his hard-partying, big-hearted neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). The second, with irascible Vietnamese dissident, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who works as Dusan’s cleaner. After accidentally breaking Ngoc Lan’s prosthetic leg, Paul feels obliged to help her, and their friendship thrives as he assists with her cleaning job, and delivering meals and medicine to the infirm residents of her building.
There is so much to like about Downsizing that it’s hard to know where to begin. For starters, the concept is a perfectly literal piece of science fiction, wildly imaginative and thoroughly explored. The delightfully well thought-out practicalities, contrasting against bigger picture ideals, are what sell this world to us. From nurses scraping up newly shrunk patients with spatulas, to FedEx-ing sailboats around the world as a means of speedy and efficient travel, it feels like every aspect of downsized life has been considered. For the bigger picture, as people shrink in stature, their wealth grows comparatively. As they eat and consume less quantities, they get more value for money, thus a meagre few thousand dollars becomes millions in downsized economic equivalency.
The performances are also excellent. Damon showcases his versatility as Paul Safranek, an everyman and a decent guy. Paul’s mild-mannered nature is the perfect foil to Ngoc Lan’s cranky abruptness and Damon’s chemistry with the fantastic Hong Chau is perfect. Waltz is also great fun as Dusan, whose generous and profligate lifestyle opens new doors to Paul’s button-down existence. And Waltz and Udo Kier (as sea captain, Konrad) make a surprisingly terrific double act – the perfect subjects, should Payne ever consider a Downsizing spin-off.
As fun as Downsizing is, there are also plenty of topics Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor want to address. They have huge fun with the concept, embracing the absurdity of downsizing with a lightness of touch that also serves as a reminder that climate change and overpopulation are very apposite concerns, and all without ever feeling preachy.
Downsizing also speaks of the American Dream and, in turn, the first world in general, as the quality of life experienced by those at the top is always at the expense of those at the bottom. Despite how perfect and Disney-fied Leisure Land may look, it is no utopia. There is a working class or an underclass, doing the cleaning and the other jobs most people don’t want to do. They are hidden away, living out of sight and out of mind of the micro nouveau riche community.
By extension, Downsizing comments on the immigrant experience. As Paul and Audrey prepare for the new life ahead of them, saying goodbye to family and friends, Audrey’s family lament the fact she will be far away and that visitation will be hard. It is as if they are preparing to move abroad. Furthermore, once Paul arrives in Leisure Land he ends up needing to work, and although a highly skilled and qualified physical therapist, he finds employment in a call centre.
Prejudice is also dealt with subtly in the way casual language is thrown around. A customer asks Paul, “Are you being short with me?”, and in a more blatant sequence, an angry bar patron rails against small people voting because they do not contribute to the economy.
Finally, Downsizing offers us a message of positivity, urging us to recognise the importance of doing good locally and in our own communities. In today’s political climate, where the politics of spite and fear seem to be thriving everywhere, it might feel as though the whole world’s gone sour. Downsizing tells us the grand gesture is admirable, but so too is striving to make a difference in our own surroundings. And while that might be naïve, simplistic or even old fashioned, as far as messages go, it’s certainly not a bad one to have.
Payne handles everything with confidence. From the subtle implications of back story, to the finely balanced tone. He shifts from comedy, to pathos, and back again with ease. At its centre, Downsizing is a real heart warmer. It’s both very funny and melancholy, and Payne and Taylor craft their characters so well you have to remind yourself these individuals don’t really exist. As in every one of Payne’s films, these people live, as we all do, in the spaces between ‘good’ and ‘bad’, acknowledging the reality that there are no absolutes.
Downsizing’s glorious concept and attention to detail mean this world is fully realised, believable and fun to inhabit. It explores both concept and message with joyful, imaginative abandon and although its messages are not subtle, they are not heavy handed either. Payne’s witty and intelligent science fiction is wonderful, and one of 2017’s best.
THE REEL SCORE: 9/10