Can there be any clearer signal of reality warping as we hurtle toward imminent apocalypse than the fact that Alexander Payne has made a life-affirming film? Venice opener “Downsizing” takes the long road getting there, and it’s a journey full of witty, skittish, scenic detours leading to the occasional dead end. But the ride is not only peppered with moments of inspired humor, it’s also peopled by characters who are expressly, unapologetically likeable, so that by its unexpectedly chipper ending, it’s been an enjoyable, broadly accessible and wonkily heartfelt good-time-at-the-movies. It’s about humanity gaining the power to shrink to one-twelfth of its size, but it’s Payne’s most expansive film by roughly the same proportion, inverted.
The shrinking formula, developed by visionary Norwegian scientist Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgard), is put forth as a potential solution to the world’s population woes. The theory goes that tiny people will consume only a fraction of the resources. And in the relatively short span of 15 years or so, the process has started to catch on, and various communities of “smalls” have been established. In America, the chief lure, however, does not seem to be environmentalism, but all the stuff you can have, and the lifestyle of ease and opulence you can enjoy, at a facility like the dome-covered mini-town of “Leisureland.” To drive the point home, miniature Neil Patrick Harris, as a Leisureland sales agent giving a gaggle of gawking “bigs” a live infomercial, points up to miniature Laura Dern in a bath, who talks into her radio mic about the diamond-encrusted platinum jewellery set she’s just bought for…$83.
Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are one of the couples considering this permanent and irreversible lifestyle change. Selfless good-guy Paul’s job as an in-house occupational therapist at a local steak manufacturer is unfulfilling, his lack of upward mobility reflected in two mirrored sequences, set ten years apart, when he comes back to the same uninspiring home to administer care to first his complaining mother, then later to his headache-prone wife. But though they agree to take the plunge together, Audrey backs out at the last minute after Paul has already gone under, so he must face his new life, rattling around in a grotesque, chandelier-laden mansion in Leisureland, alone.
Until now, the story has been entertainingly told, with plenty of drollery coming from the practicalities and impracticalities of life as a person five-inches tall, and there’s even some glancing political commentary in the shape of a drunken barfly who suggests that since the small contribute less to the economy they should therefore be given less of a say — a quarter of a vote, or an eighth, for example. But Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor‘s intentions are much less narrow than the simple, straightforward mining of a high-concept sci-fi premise. And so soon Paul is involved with irrepressible Serb black marketeer and party boy Dusan, played by Christoph Waltz, bringing the Christoph Waltz but in ingratiatingly self-aware form: “Yes, maybe I am a little bit asshole, but the world needs assholes otherwise where would the shit go out?” he declares impishly (a line which, incidentally, could refer philosophically to several of Payne’s rogue’s gallery outside this film).
Through Dusan he also meets an urbane, benignly enigmatic boat captain played by Udo Kier, and Dusan’s cleaner, Ngoc Lan (an irreplaceable, sparkling Hong Chau). Ngoc Lan is (deep breath) a Vietnamese illegal immigrant with one leg, who was shrunk against her will while imprisoned as a dissident, as well as the only survivor of a stowaway entry into the U.S. inside a TV box, who speaks in staccato, preposition-less broken English and lives in a dirt-poor tenement kept outside Leisureland’s walls like a dirty secret. She could be a collection of irritating quirks and stereotypical cliches, but actually she’s the film’s secret weapon: an utterly endearing, offbeat character who provides the most genuine moments of emotional connection. She is played so warmly that she almost wholly compensates for the fact that (white) women elsewhere do not come out very well: there’s Audrey’s sudden, selfish abandonment of Paul; the misery-guts griping of his mother; and even the vacuousness of Laura Dern’s cameo in the bath.
But if Hong delivers the film’s most revelatory performance, Damon is, unshowily, just as good in his turn as the schlubby Paul, basically the personification of the word “normcore.” There is something almost transgressive about making such a thoroughly decent, thoroughly middle-of-the-road, ordinary guy your protagonist, and even when the rather overlong film rambles off in one of its less successful directions, he’s worth sticking around for.
In a way, “Downsizing” performs a sleight of hand similar to that of “The Truman Show” in that you come for the high-concept sci-fi, but stay for the characters. Which is not to say that the sci-fi elements are badly handled (though sometimes when tiny people and normal-sized people share the frame, the CG feels a little unconvincing). We wisely never see the actual shrinking process, just fun before-and-after details, and even then it quickly becomes clear that simple sight gags about scale and size differential are by no means the best of the film’s humor or insight. “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” it ain’t.
In fact, formally the most impressive aspect is how Phedon Papamichael‘s photography coupled with Stefania Cella‘s clever production design manage to evoke a slightly miniaturized, toytown-ish vibe even when there is nothing else in frame for scale. And not just in the train-set neatness of Leisureland’s mansions and manicured lawns; Ngoc Lam’s apartment block is similarly microcosmic, inventively imagined as a makeshift ghetto created inside an abandoned prefab worker’s hut just outside the bounds of the Leisureland’s sterile perfection. The idea that humanity might be given a chance to create a utopia, but just end up making a facsimile of our existing world’s injustices and inequalities is the more powerful for being more or less unstated.
But heady, bold statements about humankind are both the film’s best aspect and its chief flaw: There are just so many of them. While seldom less than engaging, the film trifles with so many different ideas (Ngoc Lam’s religiosity, the use of the shrinking tech for evil, altruism, consent, the potential for cultish reappropriation, the legitimate economic ethics raised by that boor in the bar) that there’s an overall lack of focus, and some of the most tantalizing avenues are left unexplored or undeveloped. As compensation, however, accompanied by Rolfe Kent‘s bouncy, magically-inclined score, “Downsizing” romps its way across the planet only to blossom into a surprisingly satisfying love story and, for Payne aficionados, an even-more-surprising exhortation: choose life. And that’s not Life as a grand, upper-case-L concept, but the ordinary variety — that of hatchbacks and neighborliness and often getting things a bit wrong. We may be doomed, and Life on Earth may be about to end, but lower-case lives are still worth living, be they ever so small. [B/B+]