Alexander Payne, one of our best and most inventive filmmakers, is thinking big about being small. In Downsizing, a bracing comedy of shocking gravity, Payne and longtime writing partner Jim Taylor posit a future where human beings are offered the chance to shrink down to about five-inches in size and thereby be less of a burden on the besieged environment. And the money part’s not bad either in a world where a little truly does go a long way. Any volunteers?
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon at his Everyman finest ) is intrigued. His job as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks is a mid-level trap. Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) have no children and nothing to hold them back. Plus, their BFFs (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), have gone small and they’re loving it, raving about Leisureland, a dome-covered community (bugs, you know) where the small can live large in elegant surroundings, complete with pools and golf courses. Even the shrinking process is relatively painless once you shave your hair (otherwise you’ll look like ZZ Top) and remove your fillings (otherwise your head will explode). Payne makes these changes as humorous and un-contrived as possible, the better to suck you into this brave new miniature world.
For a year, all is well for Paul, except for his wife’s 11th-hour desertion and the hedonistic, Eurotrash boys next door, Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and Joris (Udo Kier), who keep pushing him to party. Sex, drugs and rock & roll still hold sway, even in miniature, and it’s a kick to watch Waltz and Kier riotously indulge. Payne and his FX team achieve visual miracles, letting us see full-sized humans and those who’ve gone small in the same frame. Cheers to cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, production designer Stefania Cella and visual-effects master James E. Price for making the impossible seem thrillingly real.
It’s only when Paul meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident, shrunk against her will, who works as his maid, that his worldview begins to change. Despite the fact that she wears a prosthetic – one of her legs has been amputated below the knee – Ngoc is a one-woman army of protest and purpose, her broken English no obstacle to her blunt communication. And the Third World she occupies is a microcosm of the one made manifest in cold reality. Hong Chau, best known from Inherent Vice and HBO’s Treme, achieves nothing less than an acting triumph. Her Best Supporting Actress nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild are just the start of the honors coming her way. Her poignant scenes with Damon, an actor so good he can make decency intriguing, cut to the heart. As Paul and Ngoc move from unlikely friendship to unlikelier romance, Payne takes us on a journey that leaves everything at risk.
To say more would cheat audiences who enter this film, as they should, with no preconceptions. Downsizing brims over with the pleasures of the unexpected, a hallmark of Payne’s artistry. His six previous films (Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants, Nebraska) center around characters at a crossroads, American dreamers grabbing at intangibles. Downsizing is no exception, though its sci-fi premise plays out against an atypically grand design. The visionary ambition of Downsizing is a new direction for Payne, and it’s rough terrain. It’s true that he juggles more ideas than he can keep airborne. And his social satire lacks the killer instinct to leave his dreamers in ruin. But that’s the thing about Payne. His core humanity is as exhilarating and resonant as any new road he takes us on. Downsizing leads us to, of all things, the end of the world. Without a scintilla of Hollywood sentiment, Payne suggests it’s a journey better traveled together. There’s nothing small about that.