My notes on the film Downsizing.I generally admire Alexander Payne’s films, but – with the exception of Election – find them too slight and quietly depressing to revisit. This – paradoxically, given its subject – might be seen as his move to consider bigger things, and it’s a strange sprawl of a film that goes the Incredible Shrinking Man route not just thematically but structurally as it changes its tone and even subject matter every reel or so as the protagonist downshifts to a new locale which give him a more acute sense of his place (or lack of place) in the universe. It takes its time getting started, gentling in the science fiction premise with a long prologue that has idealistic, shabby-amiable Norwegian boffin Dr Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) discover a process whereby living things (but nothing else) can be reduced in size and mass a la Dr Cyclops. He and his colleagues envision this as something that will solve the problem of limited resources – proudly displaying a single half-full rubbish bag containing an entire community’s ‘non-compostable waste’ for a year – though there are soon mutterings about global warming releasing methane trapped in slushy permafrost which might well doom humanity anyway.
In the time it takes for the first ‘small’ baby to grow up to be a vacuous horny celebrity, the process catches on in the US as a way not of minimising eco-footprints but stretching funds so that struggling middle-class folks who downsize find themselves wealthy and freed from the need to work. Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig), both unsatisfied with their mid-range American dream, apply for the process but while Paul has his fillings removed and bowels rinsed Audrey is spooked by having her eyebrows shaved and backs out … leaving him irreversibly small and moving into a doll’s house-sized McMansion that seems vast and empty. Another lurch on and Paul’s stuck in an even duller job – he didn’t renew his occupational therapy license so he’s a helpline drone – and an apartment under noisy playboy Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who has found even more loopholes to exploit as a small person (his partner in crime is a wily Udo Kier) and has a constant party going on. Paul is sucked into Dusan’s wake, but then whirls into Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a fierce and industrious cleaner who was shrunk against her will by an oppressive government and has lost her foot while being the sole survivor of a group people-smuggled inside a TV carton, hinting at the many unethical uses of the process that have caught on in the world Payne doesn’t pull back and show us.
A laid-back, too-tired-even-to-be-glum Damon and energetic, interesting Chau – who speaks in broken English verging on stereotype but is additionally fluent n Spanish – have an interesting relationship as he breaks her prosthetic foot while trying to adjust it and then feels obliged to help her in her cleaning chores, discovering a ghetto of mostly latino workers piled against the exterior of the dome community. Then, things change again … and we’re off to Norway, where Dusan brings Paul and Ngoc Lan together with Asbjornsen and his original crew, who have reluctantly concluded that the world is doomed again and are on the point of abandoning their original small settlement for a deep-level bunker and five thousand years of underground living before the planet readjusts. Payne interestingly sees the potential end of the world as an issue on a level with the petty gripes his characters habitually tussle with – a school election, a junk mail offer, wine tasting, empty retirement – and it might not do to come at this as if it were a science fiction film, even if it thinks more about the practicalities of its process than many a more earnest dystopia. Payne has an eye for striking, but not overstressed images – the desk lamp dominating a room, the travel containers for small people, the viscid thickness of bodies of water seen from a smaller perspective, even an Ant-Man style gag about an explosion to seal the underground shelter that pops off like a firework. With matey cameos (all as small people) from Jason Sudeikis, Margo Martindale, Laura Dern and Neil Patrick Harris. Co-written by Payne’s usual script partner Jim Taylor.