A curious oddity in more ways than one, Downsizing heralds writer/director Alexander Payne’s return to original storytelling, his script here being the first since his debut feature, Citizen Ruth, to not be adapted from a novel. Like Ruth, Downsizing is a gutsy contemplation of American society, but one that’s unlikely to inspire the sort of profound musings that are prominent in his more perceptive works: it isn’t as eccentric as Election or Sideways, nor as sharp as Nebraska & About Schmidt.
So confident is Payne in the outlandish conceit propelling his narrative that he’s all too happy to indulge in a lengthy opening movement, beginning in a Norwegian research facility where distinguished scientist Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), has discovered a solution to the problem of over-population; a process of shrinking the body mass of individual humans to the size of five inches, and thus reducing our collective carbon footprint.
Fast-forward fifteen years, and “Downsizing” is now a lifestyle option that’s available across the globe to anyone who’s keen to improve their own self-worth. For Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), the appeal is overwhelming; though they currently face financial difficulties, the conversion of their funds having “downsized” equates to a vast fortune. And, if that wasn’t enough, there are three cheesecake factories to choose from in this microscopic utopia, as Paul’s already shrunken school friend (Jason Sudeikis) enthusiastically informs him.
Unencumbered by the complexities of the narrative’s offbeat centre – the concept established with a deft matter-of-factness – Payne fosters a surprisingly light tone during the first act; the enthusiasm of Damon’s performance, and the playful visual humour of the set-up more akin to the lively, unconventional charm of Spike Jonze. But once we arrive in the miniaturised world of ‘Leisure Land’, the mood soon adopts a more misanthropic tenor that’ll be familiar to those who are accustomed to Payne’s previous work.
As Paul’s neighbour, Dušan (Christoph Waltz), virtuously extols, “this small world is filled with things to see.” In reality, however, the world Paul finds himself now transplanted within is no different to the one he left. It is, effectively, a scaled-down microcosm of it, and a victim of the same social stigmas and disparities in wealth that define our own existence: Hong Chau’s exiled Vietnamese activist, Ngoc, cynically used by Payne as an intermediary who opens Paul’s eyes up to the inequality of ‘Leisure Land’.
The real problem is that beyond such conspicuous observations, there are no discernably deeper reflections to be considered here that weren’t explored with greater rigour in Payne’s earlier pictures. It isn’t, however, through lack of inspiration that the film stumbles – Ngoc leading Paul beyond the confines of ‘Leisure Land’ to reveal that even in a place synonymous with freedom, people can still be trapped by circumstance – but rather because of the filmmaker’s apparent inability to articulate his own deeper conceptions on humanism; the protracted runtime leading him to quickly become lost in the cosmos of his contemporary Lilliput. Ironically enough, it’s the bigger ideas that eventually dwarf Downsizing‘s impact.
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