Shrinking is all the Rage in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing

A puny Matt Damon grapples with big ideas in the sci-fi dramedy Downsizing.

Alexander Payne has done it again. The acclaimed director-screenwriter behind contemporary classics About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants crafted a film unlike any other in today’s profitable but repetitive Hollywood. In a box office world replete with sequels, franchises, adaptations and reboots, his new movie Downsizing is both smart and gripping, and it features an Oscar-gilded cast that produces something refreshing and powerful.

In Downsizing, Matt Damon plays a Midwesterner at the onset of a midlife crisis who shrinks himself to attain material fulfillment. Payne casts his protagonist’s small-scale woes against greater global problems of overpopulation, climate change and natural resource depletion. What at first seems like a premise to the latest Club of Rome report slowly turns into an odyssey with a bleak ending.

Big Ambitions

Imagine that in an attempt to reduce mankind’s ecological footprint, Norwegian scientists succeed in shrinking humans to five inches tall. Some time later, Damon’s character Paul Safranek and his wife, Audrey (Kirsten Wiig), decide to “downsize,” and their aim isn’t necessarily to save the planet. In a small world, the Safraneks’ modest savings translate into millions and a luxurious lifestyle unattainable in the big world is now within their grasp.

But instead of a mansion, shopping sprees and golf, the miniscule world offers Safranek large lessons about human nature. He befriends his playboy neighbor Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz with irresistible humor and his trademark corrupted charm. Paul also rediscovers love, which makes him marvel at the world with the wonder it deserves and gives him comfort when the grand social experiment ultimately fails.

Downsizing’s visual effects dazzle, and Payne’s knack for the very finest cinematic imagery is once again apparent. While Damon’s medium-size performance falls short of an Oscar nomination, newcomer Hong Chau’s touching portrayal of a shrunk Vietnamese dissident who enters Paul’s life garnered Golden Globe and SAG nominations for best supporting actress.

Little Buzz

Yet the shower of accolades that met Payne’s previous movies has not set in. While claiming Hollywood laurels is certainly not the be-all and end-all of artistic success, for Payne, a critic’s favorite, it’s perhaps a reflection of some of the film’s shortcomings. Penning the script with his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor, Payne tries his hand at satire, yet his signature realism is both a blessing and a curse.

The meticulous, pseudo-scientific background lends itself well to the comedic exaggeration the genre needs to flourish, but Safranek’s familiar regrets and routines anchor Downsizing in some uncomfortable truths. Even through the hyperbolic lens of science fiction, it’s hard to gain enough distance: Mankind’s ultimate downfall, global warming, feels way too plausible to be a laughing matter.

Downsizing’s overarching theme is familiar: Utopia fails because mankind brings its baggage with it. Yet the film is sophisticated and memorable, leaving the audience with a sober and grim outlook for the future. If Paul Safranek is the typical everyman, our species’ well-intentioned but self-destructive nature predisposes our pending demise.

Payne’s latest may not be the comedy it aspires to, but will it be big enough for a classic? Let’s hope we live long enough to find out.

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