The green-minded consumer may talk about reducing their carbon footprint, but to what lengths would they really go?
The green-minded consumer may talk about reducing their carbon footprint, but to what lengths would they really go? Writer-director Alexander Payne’s sci-fi satire Downsizing proposes a world in which economics drives humans to undergo a dramatic physical reduction in order to save the planet—and save money. It’s a bold premise that isn’t without its problems, and the dramatic spotlight is handed to the movie’s most banal character. But at the fringes of this film are a handful of colorful performances that feed Payne’s vision of a small world that has the same kinds of problems as the planet at actual size.
As the film opens, Swedish scientists have made startling breakthroughs in a cellular reduction technology that enables humans to shrink to just a few inches tall. The news sweeps the world, including the modest Midwestern home where occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) is a live-in caretaker for his ailing mother.
We come to learn that Paul attended medical school but cut his ambitions short to care for his mother. The film’s timeline parallels scientific discovery with Paul’s stagnation; we catch up with him 10 years later, still living in the same house after his mother died, struggling to make ends meet with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and desperate for a change. At their high school reunion, where Paul glumly expects to compare his life unfavorably with more successful graduates, a pair of former classmates makes a surprising appearance as a downsized couple, in a kind of habitrail for humans. Paul thinks he just might be able to “make a difference” himself, but his friend assures him that the choice was more economical.
Paul is drawn to promises of communities with likeminded small people who live in the equivalent of luxurious mansions for just a fraction of the cost of a regular-sized house. Unfortunately, just as he’s about to undergo the operation with his wife, she has a sudden change of heart and he’s left to navigate this small new world alone.
This small new world, called Leisureland, looks much like our own; that is if we lived in the kind of community in which distinctive character actor Udo Kier plays a supporting part. Kier doesn’t get much screen time, but he devours the tiny scenery with uninhibited glee—his role makes you think he was put on this Earth just to impishly pronounce “Titicaca.” Christoph Waltz is just as strong as Dusan (a nod to director Makaveyev?), Paul’s swinging bachelor neighbor, an industrious Eastern European who has established himself as a wheeler and dealer in this Lilliputian community.
But the most crucial supporting character is the Vietnamese dissident turned housekeeper Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). When Paul sees her walking with a pronounced and clearly painful limp, his instincts as an occupational therapist are drawn to her as a patient, and then a lover. Hong takes a character that seems a mere caricature and makes her a whole person—more than most of the characters around her.
It is perhaps ironic that a movie about reducing your carbon footprint has a fairly long runtime populated by such a sprawling cast. Yet the various thick accents and wandering plot reflect off the nondescript figure at its center. Sure, Paul is another one of Payne’s middle-aged white guys in crisis, and he manages to play both white savior and “white guy who learns how to get down from the magical Other.” But the global community writ small is kind of fascinating, a microcosm of all the world’s excesses and impoverishment in one package. Payne’s vision of Middle America in crisis can lean to the banal, and that’s the case even in this science-fiction world. Downsizing doesn’t always work, and it seems like a Rorschach test that may push various buttons in different audiences. Which means that this flawed film is the director’s most provocative, if not his most successful.