Downsizing review – Matt Damon micro-utopia fantasy is only a small victory | Downsizing

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Alexander Payne departs, just a little, from his realist mode with this sci-fi satire about a revolutionary new micro-utopian method of shrinking human beings to matchbox size so they consume less, help the planet and boost their own consumer lifestyle in leisure-oriented downsized communities. It starts out quick, sharp and funny and ends as a solemn and slow-moving leviathan: a movie overwhelmed by its own ecological and human implications, jettisoning the comedy that had been so intensely enjoyable during the opening act, in favour of a tragedy-romance of homo sapiens and a world over-populated and underprepared for the coming crisis. There is a tiny bit of Swift here – or The Incredible Shrinking Man, or Ant-Man, or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. But in each of those cases, the normal-sized “big” world is perennially reintroduced to maintain the dramatic impact of littleness. Downsizing is doing something different.

Some have been restive at its vision of developing-world communities accepting charity from a white American and found the Vietnamese character to be broad and stereotypical: Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Golden Globe nominee Hong Chau. My own opinion was split by the running time. This long film is blisteringly brilliant for the first hour or so. Then there are shark-jumping issues.

It takes place in Omaha, Payne’s creative homeland of American ordinariness and nagging discontent. Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an everymannish physical therapist who is reasonably happy with his life; but his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) is stressed at their penny-pinching ways. Then a college reunion brings them face to face with a contemporary who has “downsized” to five inches with his family and gone to live in the Leisureland community of tiny people in New Mexico. Their dollars go unimaginably further and these people live like very rich retirees while they are still young enough to enjoy it. After some agonising, Paul and Audrey think: What the hell? Let’s do it, too.

The scientific process is shown in the movie’s opening sequence, and the story of its discovery and announcement is all stunningly, eerily convincing. So is the actual preparation process that Paul and Audrey undergo. It’s an almost religious ceremony of shaving your body, removing teeth-fillings etc in a clinical white-walled facility, like preparing to join some monastic order. Or perhaps more than that: a quasi-Dignitas moment, a renunciation of this “big” world, a repudiation of pride and self-love, a surrendered acceptance that one will be more happy and more useful as a tiny person.

Hong Chau and Matt Damon in Downsizing.
Hong Chau and Matt Damon in Downsizing. Photograph: AP

And yet, after a thrilling twist around 50 minutes in, Downsizing loses some of its electric charge. There are still moments of surreal comedy, as when the couple’s two wedding rings – now the size of gold hula-hoops – are delivered as “keepsakes” to their micro-mansion. But the film mostly stays in the little world, the comic disparity between that and the bigger version is lost: the little world is normalised. It is possible to forget that it is, in fact, a little world, and there are no technological or corporate problems to compromise its downsized integrity.

We stay down the rabbit hole of miniaturisation, and in some ways that is a subtly coercive effect of strangeness. Leisureland itself is no Shangri-la: the high disposable income of many of its inhabitants has created a dodgy breed of entrepreneur, such as Paul’s neighbour Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz, and his equally tricky friend Konrad, played by Udo Kier. They import cigars and booze from Serbia wholesale and make huge profits on the tiny retail portions. And there are shanty towns of exploited downsized people who have to do the cleaning and manual labour, which brings us to Chau’s sharp-voiced Vietnamese immigrant-refugee whose destiny is to intertwine with Paul’s.

Chau gives a brash yet heartfelt comic performance, but Waltz is frankly a misfire: a sneery sub-gangster approach that could have done with a firmer directorial hand. Payne famously kept Jack Nicholson within bounds for his 2002 comedy About Schmidt, but Waltz has not been so amenable. This actor was very irritated at the Toronto press conference for Downsizing, on being asked about “bad guy” roles, but the truth is that this performance is a bit of a one-note turn.

And where are we going with it all? Eventually, our heroes are to face a new kind of migration crisis, and – absurd though it is to complain about plausibility in a film like this – it strains credulity to a new level. Alexander Payne is incapable of making a bad film. This one was smaller than I’d hoped.

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Source: The Guardian
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