Alexander Payne, the American filmmaker more interested in little people and small moments than any other, has decided to make a science fiction movie. ‘Downsizing’ is unquestionably his biggest production to date. But with Payne being Payne, it’s also a movie about letting go and embracing the small things in life.
On a certain level, the movie is an attempt for Payne to reach his largest audience yet. Unfortunately, it’s likely going to be his least-seen film since ‘Citizen Ruth’. That doesn’t mean ‘Downsizing’ is bad. Flawed? Sure, but not bad. It’s just not the sort of movie that should be hitting screens during the Christmas rush, regardless of the Oscar season schedule.
‘Downsizing’ has a big high-concept premise that it gets out of the way in the first scene. Somewhere in Norway, a scientist invents a revolutionary technology that can shrink people down to a few inches in height. His plan for the tech? To create a new society of tiny people who will use fewer resources and consume less for the good of the planet. Sounds like a great idea, right? Well, that’s what Paul Safranek (Matt Damon playing a downtrodden type) thinks. He and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to go through with the procedure, as they’ll be able to live like kings on their meager savings in the downsized world. Then things go wrong. Paul ends up broke again, only now tiny. His neighbor is a sleazeball (Christoph Waltz) taking advantage of the tiny world, with all the annoyances that implies. Fortunately, Paul finds a friend in a one-legged tiny refugee played (Hong Chau). Together, they might even learn some lessons.
Given that all of Alexander Payne’s previous features have been about sad people on the fringes of society struggling to do well, ‘Downsizing’ might sound like a wild leap for the filmmaker. In a way, it is. This is the first movie he’s made with visual effects, and indeed he’s created an intriguing little world with some amusingly jokey sci-fi imagery. The movie isn’t really about that stuff, though. The science fiction concept is just a vehicle for more of Payne’s usual subtle observational comedy and gentle satire.
It’s actually a far more complex story than it initially seems. The way the society turns people’s idealism into a way for the middle class to become rich in a miniature world is a pretty scathing look at American politics and greed, just not in a way that announces itself. Cynical satire is baked deep into the movie, especially in how the new world chooses to treat the impoverished and outsiders. However, Payne’s primary goals aren’t to tear down humanity. Instead, he’s crafted a beautifully positive parable about how life only seems complex, but is actually very simple. All you need to do is find the little things that make you happy and the little ways to help others. Of course, no one says that out loud. It’s a thematic pun and there’s something very clever about that.
As usual, the actual characters and drama of Payne’s film are made up of strange neurotics screwing up and refusing to follow any sort of master plan. Matt Damon plays a role that was clearly written for Matthew Broderick’s specific brand of neurosis. (The filmmaker has been nursing the project along since the days of ‘Election‘). Damon does fine as the dopey everyman learning big lessons in all the wrong ways, but was clearly cast to secure financing. Christoph Waltz is hysterical as a mysterious wealthy sleazeball, perfectly paired with Udo Kier to form an oddball comedy team that really deserves to be revisited. The best performance in the film is likely to be considered controversial by the same brand of Liberal gently teased in the movie. Hong Chau plays a tiny refugee turned maid in a performance that’s equally moving, cartoonish, and deceptively wise. She also has a strong accent and speaks in broken English. Some will claim that’s a stereotype. Others will recognize the depth of Chau’s wonderful work and the fact that some people do have accents and a growing grasp of the English language, and there’s nothing wrong with presenting that.
At times, ‘Downsizing’ feels too ambitious for its own good, and Alexander Payne can’t quite articulate what he wants to say with all his pretty pictures and eccentric characters. At other times, ‘Downsizing’ feels like the most insightful, funny and moving movie of the year. It’s an inconsistent and imperfect film, but also one that sticks with you long after other more consistently crafted movies fade from memory. It says so much so subtly that it takes time to appreciate the layers of meaning Payne slathered into it. This feels like something that could grow in reputation over time and become something of a cult favorite, a film to be discovered by accident and appreciated when there are fewer loud and noisy movies to compete with. Watching it after you forget about all the times Matt Damon put his foot in his mouth promoting the movie couldn’t hurt either.