Traditionally, writer/director Alexander Payne has been a particularly human storyteller, interested in the common experiences that challenge individuals as they wade through tough moral outcomes. With his new film “Downsizing,” Payne expands individual concerns to global and socio-political ones, this time tackling big-picture ideas such as wealth disparity, class divisions, immigration, suburban malaise, and environmental concerns. What results is the filmmaker’s most overtly satirical work since his 1996 debut “Citizen Ruth,” which tackled the hysterical media coverage surrounding America’s abortion debate. Certainly, “Election” and “About Schmidt” retained a satirical edge, but “Downsizing” racks the focus from the personal to the universal in what ends up being a clever science fiction parable.
Matt Damon stars as Omaha everyman Paul Safranek, a middle-aged physical therapist who’s barely keeping his head above the water financially. He and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are looking to purchase a bigger home and start their lives over, and it looks like the only way they can afford to do so is by undergoing a trendy new medical procedure that will shrink them down to 5 inches tall, which would readjust their combined capital to millionaire status. The only downside is that they will have to live away from their naturally sized friends and family and move into a protected enclosure in New Mexico called Leisure Town. Audrey chickens out at the last minute, leaving Paul to cheaper, middle-class existence in his new community.
From the get-go, Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor’s commentary on consumerism, keeping up with the Joneses and the predominately white bubble-culture of gated communities is apparent, and if it were just left there, the movie would have succeeded as a quirky piece of cultural criticism, though not a very deep or revelatory one. Luckily things get more interesting beyond subtextual jabs at upper-middle-class, neo-environmental, minimalist fads, such as buying hybrid cars or living in small houses. The film opens up and reveals more once we are introduced to Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) as a Vietnamese activist-turned-refugee. Having snuck into the miniature community through a TV box, she is left with no other options but to work as a maid for the super-wealthy citizens of Leisure Town, while trying to tend to the medical needs of the other people of color who are forced to live in a crowded housing project on the other side of the enclosure.
It’s at this point that our mostly bland protagonist finds true meaning in his transition.
Because this project is driven more by its concept and its themes, the performances aren’t as specific or as fully human as we’ve come to expect from Payne’s more recent output. The movie is more distant than the big-hearted expressions found in “Nebraska” and “The Descendants,” but that doesn’t mean that the goal set here is any less rewarding as a genre exercise. There’s a lot of creativity and artistry in the production design and supporting players such as Jason Sudeikis, Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier bring enough comedic variety to keep the narrative from getting lost in the artifice.
“Downsizing” has something to say and as an issue-driven film, it suffers ever so slightly from being preachy and occasionally on the nose, but Payne and Taylor’s decision to interweave their societal and political beef into a science fiction narrative about self-discovery is well considered and rooted in an overall concern for storytelling. Even if this project is colder than we’ve come to expect from this director, every time you think you’ve figured out where it’s going and what it’s trying to say, it reveals yet another layer of thematic complexity.
Cassidy Robinson is a former Idaho State University student with a master’s degree in film studies from Orange County’s Chapman University. He is currently working as a media journalist in Los Angeles, California.