“Downsizing” Movie Review


     Writer / director Alexander Payne, whose credits include the Oscar nominated films “Nebraska” (2013), “The Descendants” (2011), & “Sideways” (2004), tackles what is perhaps his most ambitious movie idea yet with “Downsizing”, a Matt Damon starring vehicle that gives its characters an interesting and previously unthought of path for the future.  Essentially, the term downsizing, or “getting small” as the characters often refer to it, means shrinking yourself, via a groundbreaking medical procedure, to about five centimeters tall.  And why would one want to do such an outrageous act?  For starters, and from a purely selfish standpoint, those who choose to go through with it will have their net worth increase exponentially, allowing you to live as a wealthy individual whereas regular life may leave you struggling in the middle class.  Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor explore themes involving the path people are willing to explore in order to achieve a comfortable life and what exactly they are prepared to sacrifice both individually, as well as within the bigger picture.

     There are number of time jumps within the story, but we are led to believe the events depicted take place in the present day and move on as the characters and the technology behind the plot evolve.  In the first scene, we meet Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard), as he tests his newly developed downsizing process on lab rats.  When the test we observe is deemed successful, the story goes five years into the future, where Asbjornsen is introduced to a lecture room full of scientists shown as having undergone the procedure himself.  The news of his downsizing procedure, as well as the fact a secret colony of thirty six test subjects along with himself have been living in a downsized community for four years, becomes a worldwide phenomenon and creates a frenzy as others begin to inquire about the possibility of undergoing the procedure themselves.  

     But aside from the benefits to the individual’s financial prospects, downsizing is sold as a way to solve the world’s overpopulation problems and lessen the impact of the human race on the Earth’s resources.  As Asbjornsen points out, the test colony barely filled up a regular size garbage bag with their accumulated waste over a period of four years.  Soon, communities around the world begin to sprout up, boasting first class amenities for those willing to change their lives forever and never see the world the same again.

     Payne initially focuses on the reaction of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) to these various news events as he views them at home, work, and his favorite watering hole.  Early in the film, Paul is committed to taking care of his sick mother, while also holding down a job as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks (If you’re not familiar, Payne is from Omaha, which he frequently utilizes as the setting for his films, giving them a very lived in feel since his familiarity means placing his characters in locations known only by those who are life long residents.).  As the story moves forward in time, Paul marries Audrey (Kristin Wiig), but they are still living in Paul’s now deceased mother’s home, struggling with student loans and unable to buy something bigger.  In many ways, Paul, who gave up going to medical school in order to take care of his mother, feels their financial situation is inadequate and he often finds himself unable to give Audrey what she wants.

     All of this leads the couple to a tour and consultation at a popular downsized community called Leisure Land, where they intend on getting the details of the fledgling procedure and the benefits that come with it.  It is here where Paul learns he and Audrey’s net worth of about $150,000 translates to about $12 million in Leisure Land, as they are shown the lavish mansion they could buy and the posh lifestyle they could lead.  For Paul, the decision seems clear, but Audrey has reservations.  Payne follows this scene with an intricate and detailed look at the process Paul and Audrey go through.  Everything from selling their belongings to saying goodbye to family members.  But the most interesting sequence is their arrival at the Leisure Land downsizing facility, where their body hair is completely removed, any metal fillings in their mouths are taken out, and their naked bodies are taken into the chamber which enacts the procedure.  All goes well for Paul, but Audrey backs out at the last minute.

     For all the astonishing medical science in play as we witness Paul becoming small, Payne loses steam in the third act where we get the feeling the middle portion of the film is clearly the high point, leaving what happens next to seem unfulfilling in comparison.  For all the promise of a high end lifestyle, it’s no fun not having the person you love to share it with, leaving Paul to find new connections which seem to come from the unlikeliest of places.  Common sense would indicate those people living the high life need to be waited on, pampered, and have their homes cleaned, so it also wouldn't be surprising that Leisure Land has poor areas where those whose jobs it is to serve the rich reside in slums far away from the areas on the brochures.

     Paul meets a number of interesting characters as he adjusts to small life, the most lively of which being a playboy neighbor with a penchant for throwing loud parties named Dusan (Christoph Waltz).  A cleaning service who regularly picks up after the guests have left includes  Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee with a notable past who strikes an unlikely friend ship with Paul and serves as the driving character the rest of the way.  Chau’s performance has already garnered plenty of awards buzz and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her nominated, but as her character flourishes, Damon’s and the rest of the cast become overshadowed and in some cases inconsequential.  The environmental undertones of the story ring the loudest as the film reaches its conclusion, but we’re never really sure where that leaves these characters we have spent so much time with in the long run.  The premise Payne has come up with is certainly thought provoking and interesting enough, but the direction he takes us in isn’t nearly as profound as the middle half of the film which will have you thinking and debating long after you leave the theater. GRADE: B