Stop reading if you’ve made this film before: a middle-aged man has a mid-life crisis and, through a series of events and chance encounters, he attempts to overcome his near-crippling depression and learn a sense of self-worth. If that’s you, then you’re Nebraska director Alexander Payne! This time, however, there’s a twist. Wait for it: Matt Damon… is small.
That’s Downsizing, a fundamentally bizarre film that lures people in with its star power but has almost no mainstream appeal. That does not preclude it from being intriguing; it just means that a lot of people will see Downsizing by default and will spend 135 minutes scratching their heads.
Paul Safranek (Damon, Suburbicon) has never been satisfied with his life. When a Norwegian scientist invents a way to shrink humans to five inches tall as a means of combating pollution, climate change and sustainability, he decides to make the change. Realising that being small doesn’t make you a better person, Paul eventually falls in with his neighbour Dasan (Christoph Waltz, Tulip Fever), and befriends cleaning lady and Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lam (Hong Chau, TV’s Big Little Lies).
Downsizing is an intensely anti-capitalist movie, showing that while someone can attempt to create a proto-socialist paradise for the good of humanity, it will almost immediately be coopted and bastardised for the sake of profit. The solution to ennui is to shrink yourself so that you can live the life of a consumer for comparatively less than the full-size lifestyle. Paul discovering an underclass (and a wall) is disturbing because, in a society created from scratch, there should be no need for the exploitation of underprivileged citizens. This leads to the next phase of the film, which may have benefitted from more world-building and fewer montages, but has a point to make regardless.
Downsizing is a film about small-minded people who rub against those with big ambitions. Waltz’s character is possibly an objectively terrible person, but he’s interesting to be around. More than that, Dasan brings his friend Konrad (Udo Kier, The Forbidden Room) onto the scene, and realistically he could have just sat in the corner of every scene with a drink in hand and raised the tone; both of them are just that good. Chau is intriguing but worrisome as Ngoc Lam, a well-realised character who runs dangerously close to caricature with her accent and broken English, both of which are scripted rather than authentic. Chau brings gravity to a role that could have been your stereotypical “angelic woman validates man’s feelings” device, but her ethnicity is unfortunately mined for laughs as well as depth.
Payne co-wrote the film with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor (I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry), and they careen wildly between tones and genres as they go; towards the end, they remember the basic concept of the science and take the opportunity to lecture the audience “like a cult”, while also incorporating a terrible sight gag into the bargain. There’s a lot of intrigue to Downsizing, much of it occurring in the subtext, and at times the script and Payne’s direction strike a meditative tone. Downsizing is less funny than it is strange, but something has been achieved here even if a finger can’t be placed on it.
Downsizing is an odd movie that combines the standard “depressed man” narrative with a high concept that may be too weird for general audiences, and incredibly bolshie preachifying guaranteed to alienate skeptics. Still, Downsizing would have been compromised if it had been designed to please everybody; Payne’s undiluted vision is admirable, and you almost owe it to him to try it out.
Downsizing opened in Australian cinemas on December 26, 2017.
Directed by: Alexander Payne.
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Ed Helms and Kristen Wiig.