Directed by: Alexander Payne | 135 minutes | comedy, drama | Actors: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Rolf Lassgård, Ingjerd Egeberg, Udo Kier, Søren Pilmark, Jayne Houdyshell, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Phil Reeves, Kevin Kunkel, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern
If there is anyone who can capture modern American society in a sharp, satirical way, it is Alexander Payne. With films such as ‘Election’ (1999), ‘About Schmidt’ (2002), ‘Sideways’ (2004), ‘The Descendants’ (2011) and ‘Nebraska’ (2013) to his credit, Payne has built up a very interesting body of work in to build from idiosyncratic films that focus on people over forty who have reached a crossroads in their lives and are heading for an existential crisis. Men who are far from perfect, yet manage to win our sympathy thanks to their vulnerability and humanity. Payne has them struggle for the duration of the film, eventually reaching the ending credits reborn; a struggle accompanied by pleasant, refined humor at a relaxed pace. Film buffs usually eagerly await a new Payne film. The same goes for ‘Downsizing’ (2017), on the one hand a typical Payne film with a wandering forties, on the other hand surprisingly different due to its remarkable approach that leans towards science fiction, a genre that is not directly associated with Payne.
‘Downsizing’ is set in the near future. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) lives a quiet life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). He works as an occupational therapist at a meat processing company in his hometown of Omaha and still lives in his childhood home. Audrey would love to live in a bigger house, but their financial situation doesn’t allow it. Then Paul sees on the news that a professor in Norway has managed to shrink people; The aim of this medical experiment is to reduce the ecological footprint of humans not only literally but also figuratively. Small people, about thirteen centimeters tall, produce much less waste and emissions, need less space and use less precious energy and raw materials. Paul is excited, but he doesn’t get the final push until a reunion at his old high school, where he has his old friend Dave (Jason Sudeikis) – whom he has always looked up to – who has been reduced along with his wife. Not necessarily for altruistic reasons, but mainly because an ordinary man in the ‘small world’ is suddenly filthy rich, can afford a closet of a house and can lead a lice life. Suddenly Paul knows for sure: he and Audrey are going to be reduced!
The reduction process is the absolute highlight of ‘Downsizing’: first all the hair is shaved off, the ‘patients’ are anesthetized with medicines and their fillings are removed from teeth (because they could explode in the reduction machine…!). Then they all enter the gigantic machine, without clothing of course, and with the push of a button the – irreversible – process is started. With spatulas, the nurses then lift the little people off their giant hospital beds and take them to miniature recovery rooms. A process that we view with as much fascination as horror and bewilderment.
Once in the small people world, an unpleasant surprise awaits Paul. Life in the little people’s colony of Leisureland turns out not to be as rosy as he had hoped and thought; his naive dream is suppressed almost immediately. Many people have opted for downsizing for selfish reasons; to get rich quick. Dictators turn out to eliminate their opponents by making them smaller, terrorists have found an easy way to be smuggled into the country. And not everyone comes out of the machine unscathed. The outcasts gather in a mini-ghetto just outside Leisureland.
So much for the satire. Because from the moment that Paul has to move on in life as a small man, ‘Downsizing’ loses his focus. Paul meets his new neighbor, the riotous and opportunistic Serb Dušan (Christophe Waltz on autopilot), who has become rich smuggling luxury goods and flutters from one party to the next, and ends up in a party scene, which seems to belong in another movie. Through his new neighbor, Paul also meets the crippled Vietnamese cleaning lady Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), an activist who was arrested in her homeland and shrunk against her will. She emerges as the Mother Theresa of the ghetto and through her Paul really opens his eyes, but the result is that the film unfortunately completely abandons the satire and switches to moralistic and conventional drama with a – predictable – touch of romance. Damon is also a bit colorless and the film goes on too long. Fortunately, Hong Chau, in a role that could easily have turned into a caricature, is able to nestle in our hearts as the stout Ngoc Lan.
‘Downsizing’ has a fantastic and bizarre premise, but doesn’t quite live up to the sky-high expectations. As a satire, this film is – literally – only half successful. We would have liked that line to have continued throughout the film, but Payne and his regular co-screenwriter Jim Taylor opted for a more conventional storyline. That makes ‘Downsizing’ still enjoyable, but you expect just that little bit more from Alexander Payne.