Big Questions, Little Answers

Director Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor tackle overpopulation and environmentalism with their new film Downsizing, starring Matt Damon as a man who decides that life might be better if he was shrunk down to five inches tall.  Like previous Payne films including Sideways, About Schmidt, and The Descendants, his new film tackles some serious topics using comedy as a way in.  The style works, for the most part, but the movie does get a little lost in everything it is trying to say.

Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, a man who was forced to drop out of medical school when his mother got sick and now works in-house at Omaha Steaks as an occupational therapist.  He and his wife are struggling to make ends meet when scientists in Norway perfect a technique for shrinking human beings down to about six percent of their normal size.  The invention was designed to help solve the Earth’s overpopulation problem, but a nice little side benefit for anyone willing to submit to the procedure is that their money when they downsize would be worth about 2400% more than its current value. Plus, there’s a nice little tax credit for helping to save the planet.

Paul and his wife make the decision to downsize themselves and move into a “small community” called Leisureland in New Mexico, but once there, Paul realizes that it is not all it is cracked up to be.  Despite the increase in financial value, there are still poor communities amongst the small and many unhealthy people who have been abandoned by the rest of society.  When he meets up with a Vietnamese woman who was downsized against her will and shipped to the United States in a television box, Paul finds himself on a journey of self-discovery he never could have predicted.

Downsizing definitely has its delights.  Payne and Taylor have done a fascinating job of imagining what a world might look like if downsizing was a real thing, right down to the very detailed miniaturization process.  The miniature world they create is a fascinating one and I especially enjoyed the way they commercialized the procedure, as fancy talking sales professionals sell this irreversible life change to people as if they were selling them timeshares.  And they cover a lot of ways in which the world might have to change to accommodate the percent of the population who shrink down, from airline travel and sightseeing to how one might attend their high school reunion.

The movie asks a lot of interesting political and sociological questions about how this would work in the real world, such as if a miniature person would get the same right to vote as a normal sized person?  And how would this affect homeland security, given that terrorists could shrink themselves down to miniature size and sneak into the country in someone’s luggage or imported goods?  Unfortunately, the movie spends more time asking these questions than it does answering them, ultimately leadings its characters on a journey towards the possibility of the need to preserve the species that felt like a long, side story that took up what should have been the most interesting act in the film.

Despite being a movie star, Matt Damon makes for a good everyman who is easy to relate to as he navigates this land that is foreign to us even though it mostly takes place in the United States.  As the woman, Ngoc Lan Tran, who helps open up his mind, Hong Chau is a break out who delivers an excellent, occasionally heartbreaking performance modeled after, among others, her Vietnam refugee parents and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.  And Christoph Waltz is hilarious as a playboy is making a living out of importing things like Cuban Cigars and cans of WD-40 into the miniature world.

I enjoyed Downsizing for the most part, but in the end I found myself wishing the movie had gone in a different direction.  There are many different directions this movie could have gone in, but in the end it felt as if they took the least interesting path.

Downsizing is rated R for “language including sexual references, some graphic nudity, and drug use.”  The nudity is not sexualized, but part of the scenes covering the actual downsizing procedure and the drug use is minimal, but there is a fare amount of language.

Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Downsizing