“Downsizing” is not a very political movie. It shares concerns with our current political climate and it’s coming at a very political time, but it’s not a political movie. That juxtaposition will probably lead to its critical and commercial downfall. Some critics are already dismissing it for not amalgamating into clearer political stances; audiences will likely tire of its non-specific scope and slow pace. But for those willing to let “Downsizing” be “Downsizing”, there’s a very special experience waiting.
The punny title is an apt one—not only as a descriptor of the movie’s events, but also as an allusion to the sacrifices we make in times of socioeconomic strife. The film is a fable of human choice: the factors that force us into choices, the hidden reasons that we make decisions, and our propensity to avoid the consequences of our actions. “Downsizing” is both a snapshot of some of human history, and an encompassment of all of it.
The more straightforward narrative behind this summation of human nature involves shrinking Matt Damon. Norwegian scientists develop a way to shrink human beings to five inches tall, opening up the possibility of shrinking our carbon footprint by literally—well, you get it. Damon plays Paul Safranek, a married man who is tired of working his restaurant job, living in the same house that he grew up in, and hearing everyone else pronounce his last name wrong. The irreversible procedure of downsizing begins to seem attractive to him and his wife (Kristen Wiig), but not because it helps reverse climate change.
The philosophy of enlightened self-interest asserts that individuals or institutions are most likely to serve the public good when doing so also reaps personal benefits. This idea is what drives the recruitment efforts of downsized communities like Leisureland, which promise to recompense permanently tiny people with massive homes and millions in savings. Paul’s high school buddy (Jason Sudeikis) phrases it succinctly: downsizing is less about “saving the planet” and more about “living like kings”. The ethical end is a side effect of personal gain.
It’s depressing to imagine enlightened self-interest as humanity’s driving ideology, but with “Downsizing”, acclaimed writer/director Alexander Payne argues that we’d be better off swallowing that pill instead of pretending we aren’t sick. It’s a fatalistic and macabre movie, wrapped in satirical comedy and whatever sweetness one can wring out of this egoistic world.
Those expecting a serious commentary or a lighthearted humor will be disappointed: “Downsizing” rings more true to life than those genres. It explores the mitigation of human selfishness, particularly when we’re faced with the suffering of others—the result is less a sermon and more a demonstration.
Thoughtful demonstrations aren’t always edge-of-your-seat affairs. Watching an Alexander Payne film is like listening to someone choose their words carefully: the cinematography is intentional, the pace is slow, and the world is deliberately constructed. “Downsizing” meanders during its first act, but for the most part, it’s a worthwhile exercise in patience. Damon’s performance—alternately downtrodden or full of boyish wonder—is a welcome lifeline when the pacing sinks.
When Safranek arrives in Leisureland, the screenplay’s ideas shine brighter. He meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, in an affecting star turn), a Vietnamese activist who represents the marginalized groups that miss out on the profits of enlightened self-interest. Her altruism conflicts with the opportunism of Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a businessman who sees downsizing as a door to capitalistic ventures. Payne writes these characters not as means to a statement, but as people acting like they always have. Their interpersonal connections demonstrate that the downsized world isn’t too different from our regular-sized one. Payne uses that parallel to tell a big story, evoke empathy, and have a little fun without blatantly moralizing.
The outcome is quite broad, but it’s meant to be—the little truths of human existence only make sense inside of their big backdrops. The narrative is repetitive because history is repetitive. The lack of structure and resolution echoes life with gentle insight. We might need the big picture more than we need didacticism, and “Downsizing” is that big picture. It’s as familiar and enlightening as finally hearing your name pronounced correctly.
★★★★½ (4.5 out of 5)