(Warning: contains spoilers)
Alexander Payne has probably been my favourite film director over the past couple of decades; I don’t think anyone has come to close to being as precise and sharp in analysing modern-day Western society and the socio-economic forces that drive people and their relationships to each other and society itself.
Therefore, even though the film got lukewarm reviews, was a box office flop and the TV ad I saw for it looked awful, I decided to go and see ‘Downsizing’.
The film opens with the world-changing advance of people being shrunk to 10-15 cm height. Years later, it has gone mainstream with millions of people choosing to be shrunk and live in tiny communities where because of their increased wealth (diamond jewellery costs only a few dollars) they can live in luxury. A struggling lower middle-class couple Paul & Audrey (Matt Damon & Kristen Wiig) decide to go for it in a community called ‘Leisureland’ in the hope it will leave their financial troubles behind for a comfortable life. But while Paul goes through the treatment successfully, a shock development totally dismantles his future plans and leads him onto a completely different life path.
Instead of his usual present-day social-realist takes of struggling urbanites, Payne has branched out into science-fiction. It’s admirable that he’s taken a risk into new territory but unfortunately, he isn’t at ease with it. Probably the film’s biggest failing (no pun intended) is that it doesn’t convey its concept of small people co-existing with standard-sized people convincingly.
We see multiple scenes early on of small people appearing at science presentations, standard-sized people’s houses or at school reunions but surely this would be extremely dangerous with the potential of insects, pets, spilled food, hostile standard-sized adults to kill them. Perhaps it was because I have the memory of the spider fight from ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ but I just didn’t buy the way it’s conveyed at all.
Perhaps more significantly, the social analysis (usually a great Payne strength) of this radical social setup is disappointingly lacking. There’s one interesting scene where a drunk standard-sized man unleashes his resentments about small people but otherwise it’s a fairly mundane procedural of how the process works.
This covers the first 40 minutes or so and it is largely uninspiring. But once the major plot development that Audrey pulls out of being shrunk and Paul is left alone in the small community, the film goes off in many directions and becomes a lot more interesting.
The arrival of Paul’s neighbour, the hedonistic Dusan (Christoph Waltz) gives the film a badly needed jolt of life. Marvellously played by Waltz, he’s both a repulsive and endearing character; someone who is both selfish and a generous friend. Even when he’s not the centre of attention he’s a character you always keep your eye on; I loved his reaction late in the film when Paul appears after a romantic encounter.
Initially, Paul’s solo existence seems one of pointlessness and dissatisfaction which even drug experiences can’t cover up. But a chance meeting with a Vietnamese refugee Ngoc (Hong Chau) changes his life as he sees the less prosperous parts of ‘Leisureland’ and eventually goes on a trip to the original small people village in Norway where he’s confronted with a major life-defining choice.
While ‘Downsizing’ gets more interesting as it goes along and it has great empathy for its array of characters and is full of ambitious concepts and ideas, it never quite totally succeeds. Considering the path the film goes down in the final two-thirds, one wonders why the sci-fi elements had to be in it at all. And the final choice Paul makes is a bit of a weak cop-out.
Still, while this is far from Payne’s best work it’s enhanced my respect for him as a filmmaker who’s prepared to try new concepts and ideas instead of treading water with familiar material (as I think he did with ‘The Descendants’).
‘Downsizing’ is a flawed work, but worth watching.