I’m a big Alexander Payne fan. That’s the law if you live in Santa Barbara — SIDEWAYS was filmed in our wine country. But who doesn’t love ELECTION and NEBRASKA? THE DESCENDANTS and ABOUT SCHMIDT aren’t perfect, but they certainly have their fair share of greatness. So I was excited about Payne’s first foray into science fiction, even if the buzz going into the screening at TIFF wasn’t the greatest.
DOWNSIZING has a pretty insane idea. Thanks to overpopulation, global warming, and humans just using too many resources, scientists in the film have found a way to shrink people down to 5 inches tall. These 5 inch people live in what are effectively dollhouses in communities all around the world. Why would you do this? Well, tiny houses only cost a fraction of a normal one, and your life savings go a lot farther when you consume so few resources. Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wig) are a happily married couple, and when they get a visit from their friends Dave and Carol (Jason Sudekis and Marlbeth Monroe), who have undergone downsizing, they start to think it over. Meanwhile, in the downsized community, Christoph Waltz plays Dusan, a sort of playboy who likes to party, and Hong Chau stars in a breakout role as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist who is shrunk down against her will and smuggled in a TV box to America.
Yes, this idea is absurd, but it is played totally deadpan. They’ve really thought through the consequences of such a universe, and the attention to detail really helps sell the fanciful premise. That isn’t to say their aren’t laughs — how could you not play this for laughs — but they do use the setup to explore serious themes at least semi-seriously. What obligation do individuals have when the collective has screwed things up? When we haven’t quite achieved our dreams, to what lengths will we go to reboot our lives? Is that even possible? Will material wealth bring us happiness?
Hands down, the best thing about the film is Hong Chau as a Vietnamese maid and activist. This is a character we really haven’t seen much of in cinema before. She’s gruff and demanding, and orders around anyone within earshot. But beneath the tough exterior she has a tremendous heart, and is constantly doing things to help all the marginalized people in her community. She’s played to such absolute perfection by Hong Chau that I was surprised to hear how different she sounds in real life after the screening.
The next best thing about DOWNSIZING is Christoph Waltz as Matt Damon’s neighbor, friend, and all around party guy. He has all the best lines, and he completely embodies this seemingly disposable character. I really hope to see him in more comedies in the future, because his timing and charisma here is perfect.
Matt Damon is the lead of the film, but his character is surprisingly bland. That’s part of the point — he’s kind of a nobody having a midlife crisis — but as a result the film just isn’t as engaging as it otherwise could be.
Alexander Payne’s previous movies get to some deep places from a character perspective. DOWNSIZING tries to get there, but there is so much silliness, it is hard to really achieve the same depths of feeling. At the same time the comedy is in more of the clever, but not belly laugh category.
DOWNSIZING isn’t Alexander Payne’s greatest work, but it is a fun idea and an entertaining film. If you’re a fan of his, it is worth seeing.