On ambitions and rewards, meaningless choices, and the vanilla point-of-view undermining Downsizing's boldness
Downsizing Paramount Pictures
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenplay: Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Rolf Lassgård, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier, Ingjerd Egeberg and Kristen Wiig
Rated R / 2 hours, 15 minutes / 2.39:1
(out of four)
Alexander Payne's Downsizing is an extravagant experiment to make a movie whose protagonist and premise are almost entirely extraneous. It's an elaborate joke on itself, only it's too smart and too distinctly detailed and too well-performed to completely fail.
The film posits a near-future technological advancement in which people can elect to shrink themselves to about 7 percent of their normal size in order to relieve their financial burden (while also lessening their own burden on the environment). But what begins as the very premise becomes - and after not too long - more or less an incidental detail.
And then there's our shrunken middle-class suburbanite hero. Aside from the opening scenes of conceptual preamble, the whole movie is told through his eyes - from his normal life to his process of "going small" to the series of misfortunes and happy accidents and acquaintanceships that greet him in his new life. Everything about this world, we discover through him - and the story boils down entirely, like Payne's The Descendants, to a choice that our protagonist has to make. A clean choice between one of two paths. Except ... that choice is thoroughly inconsequential. Except for him. The two paths he's choosing from are going to move forward regardless, with or without him - entirely unaffected by what this one guy chooses to do.
At least the big decision The Descendants revolved around - however obvious its eventual resolution may have been (though I believe the inevitability was part of the point) - had actual stakes. The choice George Clooney's character had to make in that film directly affected a great number of people - to say nothing of the ethical and cultural baggage that came with it. But Matt Damon in Downsizing? Insignificant. He could spontaneously disappear from existence in the middle of his decisive moment and it wouldn't make a whisper of difference.
A film that in many other ways has such a clear sense of itself never figures out how to put its own idea(s) to use. And confining its point-of-view to that of a largely useless character only further restricts the conceptual and narrative possibilities. Aside from the lingering sight gag or two, the last 90 minutes of the film would be virtually identical whether the characters were downsized or not, whether this were a full-sized world or not. To an extent this is a feature, not a bug, in that the way downsized life operates - at least the version Damon's Paul Safranek has chosen, a wealthy, seemingly utopian subdivision called Leisureland - is essentially the same as any other society, big or small, has to operate. The film's setting is, quite deliberately, a literal microcosm of society at large. One that still functions with its own economy, its own power structure, its own geographic hierarchies. One whose every lavish house party (often hosted by Paul's neighbor, Dušan, a charming self-proclaimed asshole played by Christoph Waltz at his most charmingly assholeish) that seemingly fulfills the paradisal sales-pitch promises of Leisureland inevitably requires a door-to-door housekeeping crew to thanklessly clean up after it the next morning.
By ignoring the relationship between the real world and the miniaturized one, Payne makes a tacit point of the equivalency between the two. Downsized people: They're just like us! And yet this seems to largely squander the premise. On its face, and even in its explicit understanding of how its world operates, Downsizing is ostensibly political, except it's not. It's ostensibly satirical, except it isn't. Ostensibly experimental, except ... no, not that, either.
On paper, it sounds like a film of go-for-broke ambition. And yet it's not nearly as ambitious as its concept suggests it could be. Don't get me wrong - on a technical level, there's ambition to spare. The extensive special-effects work, for starters, but most impressively the production design - from the warm, handmade qualities of the makeshift tenement neighborhood on the outskirts of Leisureland to the rustic charm of a quasi-bohemian Norwegian (downsized) village. One after another, Payne and production designer Stefania Cella create memorable, lived-in spaces, ranging from the calculated (and corporate) familiarity of Leisureland's upper-class domesticity to the homier eccentricity of its self-made communities.
There is a purpose and an attention to detail in the sets and locations that's strangely lacking in the narrative that inhabits them. Fundamentally, it boils down to the fact that there's no especially good reason why we're spending 135 minutes through the eyes of this particular protagonist Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have presented us with. There's an argument to be made for having an aloof, generally neutral protagonist through which the world and its possibilities can open up and be discovered. That he's in a world populated by characters not just exponentially more interesting than he is but whose lives specifically say much more of interest about the world Payne and Taylor invented is the crux of the problem. For example, they've written a particularly strong character in Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, who gives one of the year's great performances), a once-famously imprisoned political activist who was involuntarily downsized and has been cleaning Leisureland houses in anonymity ever since. Her entire existence - and everyone in its vicinity - is largely hidden from public view, and it's one Paul - an occupational therapist by trade - only gets drawn into when he offers to repair her prosthetic leg. But the more the pairing of Paul and Ngoc Lan continues, the more he seems like dead weight - and the more Downsizing's chosen direction feels self-limiting. A bold sprawl of an idea reduced to yet another average white guy who learns a Very Important Lesson.
All that being said: While the film, as I mentioned, largely neglects its baked-in political, satirical and experimental qualities, it does land in formidable philosophical territory. As one of Paul's college buddies - Dave (Jason Sudeikis), since downsized - unapologetically explains, the scientific rationale behind the process (save the environment) is not the reason go through with the process. You do it because of what it can do for you. The exchange rate between your finances in the real world and the downsized world is massive. The sales pitch is centered around riches - all the fancy things you can have in your new life, your new permanent vacation. And indeed, Paul - when he first arrives, at least - has a sizable mansion all to himself. Dušan is remorselessly wealthy and lives a remorselessly hedonistic lifestyle. A typical American family with debts and car payments and mortgages can suddenly live like the 1 percent. They've lived good, decent lives - been good, decent people - and done things the right way, and this is their unplanned but most-welcome reward. Wealth and leisure - all for the price of being permanently five inches tall.
Ultimately, though, Downsizing confronts that conception of life as being not only bankrupt, but temporary. What it confronts its characters with is the notion of a life lived without any such promises of a reward. Whether he defines it this way or not, it is always - in one way or another - what Paul seeks, and what virtually everyone in Leisureland (and its sister communities) seeks. As an idea that runs through and governs various strains of religious thought and economic and political systems, it's neatly applicable to a premise in which people, in a sense, have to be softly bribed into saving their very planet.
This is what Paul's pivotal dilemma boils down to as well. In the end, having found neither the rewards nor the solutions he sought, he is once again provided a choice between (yet another) promise of both, and a guarantee of neither. If only his decision didn't so decisively underline his irrelevance, and make this whole movie feel so small.