Our complex human nature and strong belief in capitalism is such that the storyline of Alexander Payne's Downsizing is not only believable, but also probable. In the film, Norwegian scientists have developed a way to physically shrink inanimate objects and life forms, including humans, to 0.0364 percent of their original size and volume, touting it as a way to offer relief to the Earth and its resources strained from overpopulation. Over the course of a decade, downsizing becomes a corporatized process, and volunteering for the irreversible procedure allows American middle-class citizens to exponentially increase their financial assets and move into over-the-top McMansions like royals.
Downsizing operates within the realm of science-fiction, but Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor ground the film in realism by slowly peeling away the darker layers of society lurking underneath the paradise. The story takes a close-up look at the inhabitants of the miniaturized, planned-living community, Leisureland. (Refugees, Third World immigrants and other undesirables are downsized against their will and sent to live in a large tenement building separated from the rest of Leisureland by a giant wall.)
Among them is Jason Sudeikis' Dave, a de facto recruiter for Leisureland, who is too eager to reap the luxuries afforded from downsizing to pay heed to its environmental benefits. And Christoph Waltz's Serbian playboy Dusan smuggles in bootleg Cuban cigars, shrugging off the dangers of the trade by saying, "You think people would care about a 5-inch Serbian guy selling Cuban cigars? This is the Wild West, baby."
All of this is witnessed firsthand by Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an Everyman who works as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. Paul is initially amazed by the scientific breakthrough, but his nice but self-involved wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decides they should trade in their dreary lives for fortune. However, at the last minute, Audrey decides against the process, leaving Paul to adjust to tiny life alone.
A year later, a divorced Paul has traded in his epic estate for a midsized apartment. Through his neighbor Dusan, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), Dusan's maid who was a dissident Vietnamese refugee downsized against her will with others and smuggled in inside a box, then lost her leg to gangrene. A former activist, Ngoc Lan is a firecracker, a tough-talking, hardheaded woman who shows kindness and charity toward her friends and neighbors in her multilingual apartment building.
After subsequently breaking her prosthetic leg while trying to fix it, Paul begrudgingly runs errands with Ngoc Lan in her community. The two take a trip with Dusan and his business associate Konrad (Udo Kier) to Norway to visit the colony of original downsizing guinea pigs living there. Paul and Ngoc Lan fall in love, and Paul must decide which fate to choose for himself and his personal happiness.
What I appreciate most about Payne and Taylor's treatment is that at every stage of development, there's a debate on the ethics of such an idea happening in the first place. From Paul's mother to belligerent barflies to cable-news analysts, this utopic dream is challenged by skeptics and contrarians, as it probably would be in today's media climate.
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Most astute of all is the film's insight into what downsizing promises as a whole: a new frontier, as well as a chance to truly enjoy the fruits of "making it" in America that generations of people have felt entitled to through capitalism. While conceived to grant everyone a fair shot at living deliciously, Leisureland ends up being a microcosm of the world we live in now: privilege and spoils for some, and poverty and struggle for the rest. We really can't have nice things, can we?
Payne, already known for the cinematic stunners Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska, is working outside his genre wheelhouse, but he knows his strength is creating fully realized characters, the best one here being Ngoc Lan. As of press time, Chau had been nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress and a SAG for Best Actress, and she deserves both. Among a star-studded cast, Chau is a revelation.
The film's ending, as well as Paul and Ngoc's romance, feel a little tacked-on, but that doesn't take away from Downsizing's excellent use of humor, satire and social commentary. In this moment in history, Downsizing has enough weight to be considered one of the best dystopian comedies of our time. You don't need a microscope to help you see that.
Downsizing was directed by Alexander Payne; written by Payne and Jim Taylor; and stars Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Hong Chau, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern and Jason Sudeikis.