Directed by: Alexander Payne. Written by: Payne and Jim Taylor
In a year of films misrepresented or sold short by their trailer’s (Colossal, Beatriz at Dinner, Lady Bird, etc.) Downsizing, takes the cake. For reference this was the trailer I saw repeatedly in theatres. While it gives hints of the film’s beauty, it largely makes the film comes across as a fairly mundane romantic-comedy with a not all-that unusual sci-fi twist. For that matter, unless my memory is failing me, parts of this trailer didn’t even seem to be in the film (Matt Damon’s character is, importantly, an occupational therapist, not a generic cubicle worker).
Seen as a full film, Downsizing perfectly combines visual ambition with an emotional melange. The film is the story of Paul Safranek (Damon), a man dissatisfied with his life and financial situation, who along with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decides to “downsize”: the process of shrinking one’s body, generally with the intention of living in a miniaturized community. One of the film’s main underlying tensions quickly becomes apparent. Downsizing is a process invented to address the problem of overpopulation (or over consumption, depending on how one likes to look at it), an issue that is not lost on Paul. Through other characters, however, it is suggested that environmental concerns are not the primary driver behind the development of downsizing. Rather, downsizers are motivated by the chance to convert their modest incomes into wealth, as resources become a lot cheaper when bought at the sizes necessary to serve a downsized person.
Downsizing thus is an escape in two senses of the word. It is a necessary and potentially useful escape from the risk of climate change, and it is a distraction-escape: a way for the characters to forget the troubles of the world, and kick back in their cheap mansions. Some of the film’s most powerful moments come as these two meanings are blurred. There is one scene near the end of the film where Paul excitedly says that ten years ago he never could have believed he would have been discussing the end of the world with a famous scientist while on a luxurious river cruise. In this scene Paul is simultaneously both kinds of escapists, exposing an interesting, but familiar cognitive dissonance in his personality. No doubt many of us embody this contradiction as we consider the perils of climate change; we are motivated to want to find both an actual escape (a green society) and a mental escape (pleasurable distractions).
Downsizing has not exactly charmed critics. It currently has a 51% critics approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and the fan rating is far worse. The critical “consensus” seems to be that while the film is driven by an ambitious idea, it does not have a fully developed story. This criticism is technically accurate. It would also be accurate to question how Paul’s character is written. There are two moments in the film where he becomes decisively angry, allowing him to unflinchingly cut other characters from his life. This behaviour is not commented on by other characters, seems inconsistent with Paul’s otherwise empathetic and accommodating personality, and (oh so) conveniently advances the script, so I can understand why some critics may perceive it as sloppy writing. Nonetheless, Downsizing is an example of the whole being better than the sum of the parts. Paul manages to go on a journey and transform as a person over the course of the film. This means that even as Downsizing lacks a full-fledged plot arc, what it has instead is emotionally resonant enough that it is quite possible you wont notice the difference (I certainly didn’t). The intrigue of the film’s plot (or not-quite-plot, depending on your viewpoint) is certainly bolstered by the presence of Paul’s companions: the friendly, yet problematically hedonistic Dusan Merkovic (Christoph Waltz), and the persistent-idealistic Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau: who’s portrayal was influenced in part by Flannery O’Connor and Berta Caceres).
Downsizing’s other strength is it’s aesthetic. Seeing the architecture in Leisureland (the downsized community Paul lives in) is like watching the work of a passionate dollhouse collector, as various styles of architecture and luxury are brought together in a wonderful arrangement. The film’s dollhouse-like scenes, however, come even before miniaturization is brought into play, for instance in the cluttered, yet pristine biology lab where the film opens. While the film’s aesthetic was clearly a big budget effort, it nonetheless manages to have fun with simple-size play as well. There’s a scene where Paul decorates his house with a non miniaturized rose, a visual that should stun audiences as much it stuns Paul’s neighbor Dusan.
Downsizing can be a bleak movie, but it’s a relaxing bleakness that takes you down a beautiful river of color. It is a story of sad characters. Paul is haunted by the loneliness and frustrations of his own life. Tran is driven by her far darker past as a political dissent who was forcibly downsized. The film nonetheless manages to be light-hearted due to Paul’s constant willingness to explore solutions to his problems and Tran’s seemingly hapless pursuit of her idealism. Perhaps Downsizing lacks a fully developed story line, but contrary to what many critics seem to say, I don’t think that failure makes a meh movie out of a good idea: rather, it only suggests that this great movie could have been even better.