By Chris Lyke, member, Dartmouth Film Society
The premise of Alexander Payne’s latest comedy, Downsizing (which was part of last fall’s Telluride at Dartmouth mini-festival and was screened in Dartmouth’s Loew Auditorium February 24) seems like something straight out of a Kurt Vonnegut novel: what if scientists discovered the ability to shrink people to only five inches tall, helping the world simultaneously reduce waste emissions and fight overpopulation? It’s a fascinating (and a bit absurd) idea, and one that Payne explores to make the audience both laugh and think. Downsizing may not be on many critics’ end-of-year lists, but it is one of the most adventurous and creative movies of 2017.
While Downsizing’s concept is bloated with possibilities, Payne makes the wise decision to focus in on just a few major characters. The film opens in a laboratory, with the scientific discovery of “cellular miniaturization” by the Norwegian scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård). The, 15 years pass, and we are taken to a scientific conference where the process of “downsizing,” and the first colony of tiny people, are revealed to the world. Dr. Asbjørnsen, who now stands as tall as an upright iPhone, explains his high hopes for how downsizing can help prevent climate change and ultimately save the earth. These early scenes are largely expository, setting the rules of the film’s tiny world, but they remain interesting due to Payne’s knack for visual humor. In most current comedies, the jokes lie largely in the writing, so it’s refreshing to see a movie that takes advantage of the power of imagery. The sight of tiny people in the presence of normal-sized items like a box of crackers, a flower or a liquor bottle always managed to hit my funny bone, and the special effects are low-key but impressive. Similarly, Downsizing’s cinematography is simple but effective, successfully capturing the wonder that arises from seeing the world from smaller eyes.
Downsizing’s ordinary leading man is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a middle-class occupational therapist who lives in Omaha with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Matt Damon gives a subtle performance as Paul, who draws comparisons to the thoughtful but slightly pathetic protagonists of Payne’s previous movies, including The Descendants, Nebraska and Sideways. Paul and Audrey are financially strapped and trying to buy a new house, but while attending a college reunion, they learn that their savings of fifty thousand dollars will have a value of twelve million dollars if they shrink themselves and move to the downsized community of “Leisureland.” After much deliberation, they decide to take the leap and start their lives in the little world, a process shown with several hilarious shrinking gags (my favorite involves a spatula and naked bodies).
Here, the story starts moving in unexpected directions, both narratively and thematically. We meet Paul’s party-hard neighbor, Dušan Mirković, played by the always-entertaining Christoph Waltz, who introduces Paul to the disabled Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Ngoc opens Paul’s eyes to the wealth inequality of Leisureland, showing him the world’s tiniest slum, where she lives—and the film’s social critique becomes much clearer. Downsizing is not just a comedy about shrinking people, but it’s also a complex satire about committing selfish acts under the guise of humanitarianism. While still containing the middle-aged sad sack storyline of many of Payne’s later movies, the second half of Downsizing showcases the sharp satirical wit honed in his earlier films, Citizen Ruth and Election. Ending with a thought-provoking message of how to be a more giving person, Downsizing successfully utilizes its unique premise to raise questions about charity and economic mobility while also telling a moving story of self-change. Downsizing is a much different film than what you might expect from its trailers. While it does contain elements of sci-fi comedy, it is more interested in deeper topics affecting society and is ultimately a stronger film for it.