22nd Jan2018

‘Downsizing’ Review

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz, Rolf Lassgård, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis | Written by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor | Directed by Alexander Payne

downsizing-poster

One could argue that all of Alexander Payne’s major works – Election, Sideways, The Descendants et al – are about man’s search for meaning. Specifically, a middle-aged man’s search for meaning. And Downsizing, his most expansive and high concept film to date, is no different. It’s a movie about small people, but has a very big heart.

We have the driest opening imaginable: a science lecture. Dr Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) presents a solution to humankind’s growing population crisis: shrink everyone to five inches tall so that they use a fraction of the resources of the “big” people. An ecstatic auditorium listens to the plan to convert the entire human race within 200 years.

Jump forward a decade and 3% have made the transition. The enterprise has become commercialised. It’s a tempting offer: plough your meagre savings into this irreversible process, and watch as your hundred grand becomes ten million. A life of luxury in Leisureland, North America’s foremost “micrommunity”.

Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) are struggling to upsize. They’re still living in the apartment of his late mother. Paul’s done the math and he can’t give her the life she desires. So they choose to make the journey to Leisureland. But then – and this bit is in the trailer, spoiler fans – Paul wakes up small, only to find out Audrey never went through with it. Paul is alone in this startling utopia. It’s classic Payne: all the elements are there for joy – even Rolfe Kent’s twinkling score has a sense of children’s adventure – but instead we’re given bittersweet.

Two encounters change Paul’s life as a little person. The first is Dusan (a flamboyant Christoph Waltz), who throws rowdy, 60s-style parties in the penthouse upstairs. He encourages Paul to break free from the shackles of his old life and embrace the possibilities of the new world: live, love and let go. A lesser film would have this be the peak point of self-realisation, but then Payne throws in a wonderful curveball in the form of Ngoc Lan Tran.

Ngoc is ostensibly the polar opposite of Dusan. Indeed, it’s the juxtaposition between Dusan and Ngoc that is the turning point for Paul: the realisation that the same human problems exist down here. The same inequalities and lack of social cohesion. Wealth and comfort are relative at all scales. Ngoc is a woman living off leftovers; a woman for whom discomfort and death are everyday. She unlocks the potential in Paul. “You know things,” she says. She’s looking beyond status – beyond the vanity of Paul’s failed medical ambitions – to the core of who he truly is. Ngoc, perfectly played by Hong Chau, is an explosion of pure feeling. Confrontational and unfiltered, and often downright rude, she’s not so much a pixie dream girl as a pixie nightmare girl.

Payne has constructed a fantastically well thought-out alternative universe. The attention to detail is astounding and often amusing, whether it’s the uncanny quality of water and fire on the micro-scale; or the practicalities of shrinking (insects are an existential hazard, so nets are vital); or the actual procedure of downsizing, a surreal regression which begins with a Full Metal Jacket-style shaving. The film is quite the adventure, bringing Paul far beyond the confines of Leisureland. A distant commune, hidden in a tiny fjord, looks like a pastel painting from a religious pamphlet.

Payne embraces the sociological and philosophical questions of his creation. Perhaps the most depressingly convincing is a faux BBC report which highlights the ease with which miniature migrants can travel illegally. Being small means being less of a drain on resources but also providing less for the world. So, should the small have the same rights as the big? Should their vote carry as much weight, when they weigh 99.9% less? The film drops in these tantalising questions and leaves them for us to discuss in the pub afterwards.

By the end, humanity – big and small – faces another new threat. Every new idea is solving the problem of the last. Every new idea is the promise of utopia. Going small, says Paul’s old buddy Dave (Jason Sudeikis), isn’t about saving the planet, it’s about saving yourself. He’s not right, but neither is Dr Asbjørnsen, who is trying to save the human race with grand cultural gestures. These conflicting outlooks instil Paul with a sense of self-importance, a balloon which only Ngoc can prick. The Downsizing of the title has a double meaning: downsizing materially, but also in terms of ambition to status.

Downsizing isn’t a very funny film, and this is where it may come unstuck at the box office. Just because the trailer insists it’s a whacky, life-affirming comedy doesn’t make it so. Its comedy is a hum of pleasure, guaranteeing grins rather than belly-laughs. First and foremost this is science fiction, and its currency is ideas. Are the tonal shifts too much? It may taste saccharine to hardcore Payne fans, while mainstream audiences could find it overlong and dense. What a pity if it doesn’t find an audience. It is intelligent and heartfelt; fantastical and true. It’s the first great film of 2018.

Downsizing is out in cinemas from 24th January 2018.

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