We live in an uneasy geopolitical climate these days. Whether that concerns international relations, social troubles or impending environmental doom to you, these matters are of undoubtedly high relevance in our contemporary politics. Not to be defeated by these trying problems, Alexander Payne has addressed them in a challenging but inspiring way in his latest film, “Downsizing.”
Set in a contemporary future, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) lives an unfulfilling life as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks.
At the same time the discovery and integration of a scientific breakthrough in molecular shrinking technology makes waves around the world, allowing for humans to be irreversibly shrunk to a size of five inches. When Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), take the opportunity to “downsize,” Paul begins a journey of self-discovery across the tiny communities of the world and the people inhabiting them.
Every element of “Downsizing” is executed with a brilliantly subtle hand. Shots in the little world are framed so everything looks natural but also slightly off to give the impression that the characters are small. Similarly, the production design makes the whole film feel scientifically plausible with many “downsized” elements in the sets looking as practical in the film as they would in real life.
The cast is mostly solid.
Damon gives a good performance as the American everyman, though it’s nothing particularly remarkable. Christoph Waltz is exuberantly charming as Paul’s rich neighbor, and he makes a good foil to Damon’s character. Hong Chau stands out above the rest as Ngoc Lan Tran, a housekeeper Paul befriends. She gives a multi-layered performance that gets more emotionally ripe with every layer peeled back.
Of note is also the huge cast of extras making up a large amount of frame space. The sheer diversity in ethnic and cultural representation shown across many scenes was astounding, giving a very global feel to the movie. The film felt very real and honest in that regard.
Payne’s script takes the novel premise of shrinking rays into grounded territories as well.
The first chunk of the film was fascinating to watch, as the revolutionary discovery of “downsizing” evolves from theory into practical tangibility and then into commercial tool. There is some brilliant commentary delivered throughout the film, and again, the execution was so subtly detailed I often felt like I was watching real life.
I was filled with gasps, laughs, and wonder as I watched “Downsizing,” and I’m happy to say my theater’s audience echoed my sentiments too.
The critical insights Payne provides into contemporary issues are implemented naturally for the most part, but the film goes a bit off the rails in the third act.
An ecological doomsday scenario is introduced from seemingly out of nowhere. It’s a jarring turn from the rest of the narrative, but it actually ends up falling well within the thematic and narrative boundaries set up previously throughout the film.
Still the plot point ends up feeling a little too distant from the rest of the film.
“Downsizing” is an excellently crafted movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The film is loaded with relevant commentary on today’s society. There is a lot to digest during and after the film, and I can’t recommend it enough.
Hector Valverede is a culture reporter with the Daily Lobo. He primarily writes movie reviews. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hpvalverde.