There are few filmmakers working today who have a more consistent track record at making interesting, thought-provoking treatises on the human condition than Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska). But no matter how hard I ponder his latest, Downsizing, I’m coming up empty. The story and its metaphorical messages about life aren’t difficult to decipher. It’s that I didn’t care enough about most of the characters to want to embrace anything they were trying to say.
Downsizing’s pillar to which all other ideas are attached is the idea that we should all be open to embracing the unexpected, to not be afraid to subvert lifelong dreams when something truly awe-inspiring comes our way. I genuinely love that idea, and the film begins with just such an idea—that in an effort to lower the environmental footprint that humans are having on the earth due to overpopulation, a Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgård) develops a process that shrinks a person to about five inches tall. The idea is that over the course of 200 years, the entire population can “get small,” and this will save the planet. Tiny communities are built around the world, money goes a lot further, and resources are practically limitless.
This brave new miniaturized world looks awfully appealing to Omaha resident Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who is struggling financially along with wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). At a party, the couple run into an old friend (Jason Sudeikis) who has gone through the (irreversible) downsizing process, and he gives them the rundown on all the benefits of his new, smaller life. Downsizing works best in these earlier scenes that set up both the reason for inventing the process and the pluses and minuses of the resulting lifestyle that smaller people enter into. As silly as much of this sounds, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor mostly play it straight. Simply allowing us to take it all in (including the truly impressive special effects that blend the big and small worlds) and letting the inherent satire rise to the surface is one of the film’s great joys and gives the proceedings a sly and mischievous feel that many Payne films haven’t had in the past.
In theory, I love the idea of Payne leaving his comfort zone of deadpan commentary and dispassionate observation of characters changing the direction of their dead-end lives. The fact that he has casually strolled into the land of science fiction as a tool to get to the same end is actually quite fascinating. But once Paul becomes small, he still struggles to find meaning and a true sense of self, which leads him to corners of this tiny world that the brochure and promotional video (featuring Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) never mentioned.
The film begins to stray, almost as if it has decided to wander toward a bright light that is constantly changing position—imagine a cat and a laser pointer. Paul makes friends with his upstairs neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a grinning, vaguely European businessman who is always throwing parties and actually sometimes works with the original scientist who created the downsizing process. While recovering from one of these parties in Dusan’s dwelling, Paul meets a cleaning lady tasked with erasing the physical evidence of the night before. Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) has a rickety old artificial leg that Paul offers to fix, and thus begins the process of these two misfits helping each other improve in unexpected ways.
Adding a much-needed breath of fresh air to Downsizing, Ngoc changes both the course of the story and also the direction of Paul’s world view, so much so that he ends up going on a bit of an adventure with Dusan and Ngoc that opens his eyes and likely sets the tone for the rest of his life. I don’t want to get too specific, but I can say that it all felt a bit empty and kooky just for the sake of being kooky. Uneven more often than not, Downsizing spends a bit too much time preoccupied with what may be Payne’s obsession with the impact of climate change. But when he’s solely focused on human change, the film settles into a nice, unexpected rhythm and delivers us into a world where the journey to acquire more literally makes us less.