Alexander Payne is the least likely filmmaker one would expect to make a sweeping sci-fi thinkpiece, and that’s exactly why ‘Downsizing’ is so intriguing. The writer/director who dedicated his career to mining the small moments of life for rich emotions and laughs has made a big science fiction film that somehow stays true to his pet themes, obsessions, and delicate observations about the human condition… despite some convoluted plotting.
‘Downsizing’ opens with a momentous discovery destined to alter human history, the ability to shrink humans down to roughly five inches in height. It’ll help curve consumption and waste as well as provide ways for the middle classes to live in luxury in tiny mansions and communities. Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, a hard-luck nice guy who sees the discovery on television and then years later decides to take the tiny plunge with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Of course, it doesn’t quite go as planned. Soon, Paul finds himself even poorer in his tiny land and irritated by the ways in which miniaturized society is an indulgent mess (personified by a hilariously hedonistic Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, a magically eccentric onscreen duo). He eventually finds some hope in helping a Vietnamese woman (Hong Chou) take care of the impoverished mini-people (even this tiny utopia has the same class issues), which leads to a bizarre adventure to visit the creators of their downsized world.
Excuse the upcoming punery, but ‘Downsizing’ is a film about big ideas and small truths. Like all great sci-fi tales, it’s all an allegory for our own world. Through his typically gentle comedic tone, Payne explores issues of classism, racism, hippie idealism, hedonism, consumption, excess, and broken relationships. Some of the insights are satirical, but the big ones tend to be delicate observations about important truths.
The film is easily Payne’s most ambitious project, both in terms of the relatively large sci-fi spectacle and the sheer volume of ideas that he’s playing with. In many ways, the movie is too ambitious for its own good, feeling like a trilogy or even miniseries crammed into an overstuffed two hours and fifteen minutes. Pacing is all over the place, and for the first time in an Alexander Payne project, characterization is sacrificed to cram in plot.
Despite the flaws and missteps, there’s beauty to what Payne has accomplished. ‘Downsizing’ is a beautiful movie both visually and thematically. It cuts to the core of many major contemporary issues while still floating by with a breezy and goofy tone that sneaks up on viewers with its hard emotional impact. Even though Payne loses his way at times, there’s something wonderful about the fact that the biggest movie he’s ever made can so poignantly explore the value of embracing the small things in life. The filmmaker may not quite have found the great movie in his ambitious ideals, but he has still made a wonderful little fairy tale worth the rocky journey.