There’s An Upside To ‘Downsizing’

by Warren Cantrell on December 21, 2017

in Print Reviews,Reviews

[Rock Fist Way Up]

A socially conscious comedy with a murderer’s row lineup of acting talent in roles both big and small, Downsizing is funny, insightful, compelling, and vulnerable in ways few films dare to be. A sci-fi utopia fable with teeth, the movie sports an ambitious concept that would have collapsed under the weight of its own conceit in lesser hands, yet co-writer and director Alexander Payne manages to juggle the character work, levity, and potent themes with seeming ease.

Downsizing opens with a groundbreaking scientific discovery: the development of technology that can safely shrink a human being to less than a tenth of their size. At just four or five inches tall, a person consumes less, creates less waste, and drastically decreases their carbon footprint. This shrinking also requires fewer resources to survive, as $100 worth of regular-sized food and water could sustain a community of downsized people for months or even years. Enticed by the promise of multiplied wealth and global responsibility, many people have decided to “go small,” and it is in this environment that the audience meets the lead of the film, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon).

Paul is an occupational therapist at a mid-western meat packing plant, and whether it is in the way he cares for his sick mother or the sore co-workers on the assembly line, he seems to genuinely enjoy helping people. Paul is having a hard time juggling his financial responsibilities, however, and bemoans the fact that he and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), live in the same house Paul grew up in, where the pair pinch pennies just to keep their heads above water. Knowing that he could never hope to earn the kind of money that would make his spouse happy, and because making people happy is what makes HIM happy, Paul begins to come around to the downsizing concept.

After listening to the raves of his shrunken high school classmate at a reunion, Paul convinces Audrey to visit one of the “small” communities for a sales pitch. Dazzled by promises that their net worth will jump from lower-middle class to the eight-figure range, Paul and Audrey decide to take the plunge. Yet once Paul finishes the procedure, things start to unravel for the guy, and without going into too much detail (the surprise twists this film takes is half the delight), he finds that being small isn’t all it was cracked up to be.

Payne does a great job world-building the universe of Downsizing via a series of time jumps and background news stories that flesh out the realities of this world. One of the biggest strengths of the film is following the conceit of the premise to its logical conclusion on several different points, from the shady criminal elements that exploit the shrinking procedure, to the practical considerations involved in running a downsized community. As Paul learns after going small, not everything is as peachy in his little community as the sales pitch would have had him believe. There are rich people all around him, to be sure, but they still need diminutive maids, orderlies, and laborers to keep things going.

These people don’t live in the lap of luxury like the folks in the sales brochures, and true to his personality, Paul can’t help but to lend a hand to ameliorate their suffering. This leads to the development of an unlikely friendship with a cleaning lady, Tran (Hong Chau), employed by Paul’s neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), who also forms an unlikely bond with Paul. As Downsizing progresses, Paul relearns what it means to be fulfilled, and despite his material-rich environment, this process has nothing to do with tiny mansions, jewelry, or any of the others perks sold to him and Audrey.

For a movie with a sci-fi bent, Payne’s film has a distinctly genuine and familiar air about it. Tran’s brutal honesty and candor cut right to the heart of the world Paul thinks he’s living in, and forces him to reevaluate not just his reality, but his perception of self. Hong Chau is an absolute revelation in this role, and plays Tran with a world-weary thousand-mile-stare that jumps off the screen. Dusan is no less revelatory, yet for different reasons. Waltz inhabits the role with a whimsical European party-boy attitude that is no less honest than what Tran brings to the table, yet with a naked nonchalance that steals every scene that he’s in. Best known for his cheeky and verbose Tarantino roles, Waltz has never been funnier than he is in Downsizing, and an already good movie is made great because of it.

Matt Damon is the MVP, though, and he once again proves why he is one of the few remaining bankable stars left standing in Hollywood’s actor stable. He approaches the role with an unselfconscious fearlessness that showcases an honest vulnerability, and when Dusan jokes that he really likes Paul despite the fact that he is “pathetic,” it doesn’t even seem mean: just true. A lifetime of taking care of other people has left the man somewhat hollow, and while this hasn’t made him jaded, per se, it has definitely taken a toll. How Paul learns to overcome this is an engaging, funny, and poignant story, and is at the heart of what makes Downsizing so special.

Opening this week, Downsizing is a refreshing yarn about love, community, sacrifice, and friendship with a sci-fi twist. Carried by strong leading turns by Damon, Waltz, and Chau, the effort is made immeasurably better by home run supporting work from top tier talent like Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Rolf Lassgård, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier, Niecy Nash, and Kerri Kenney. Getting small never felt so grand.

“Obvious Child” is the debut novel of Warren Cantrell, a film and music critic based out of Seattle, Washington. Mr. Cantrell has covered the Sundance and Seattle International Film Festivals, and provides regular dispatches for Scene-Stealers and his own site, 10rant.com. Warren holds a B.A. and M.A. in History, and his hobbies include bourbon drinking, novel writing, and full-contact kickboxing. Mr. Cantrell is happily unmarried, and without any children, pets, or plants.

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