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 It's a Small, Small World 

Matt Damon
Matt Damon
Paramount Pictures
 135 Minutes
Directed byAlexander Payne
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz 

Jonathan Swift was aware of the importance of perspective when he wrote Gulliver’s Travels nearly 300 years ago, and he used a narrative device that filmmakers have followed to this day. When Swift wrote of the lands of Lilliput and Brobdingnag and their very small and very large inhabitants, respectively, he was careful to describe them in comparison to the normal-sized traveler, Gulliver, because people are only aware of gross disparities in size when they have a ready comparison of some sort. Similarly, movies ranging from Homey, I Shrunk the Kids to The Incredible Shrinking Man are only interesting when the shrunken characters are contrasted with normal sized people and ordinary objects. Once again, we have a movie about tiny people, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, and, as long as Payne maintains a sense of perspective, the movie is clever and, often, rather funny. But when he shifts his focus entirely to that of the small world, Downsizing loses its own focus and becomes a rather large mess.


The basic premise of Downsizing is the existence of a method of permanently shrinking people to a five-inch size. A European scientist developed the process as a response to the overpopulation crisis (five-inch-tall people occupy much less space and use less resources). However, typical American salesmanship soon steps in and starts marketing the downsizing procedure as a panacea for the middle class. Since doll houses are cheaper than real mansions and teeny, tiny jewelry is less expensive that full size gems, people with modest incomes and savings can live the high life (as the clip below demonstrates).


Among the newcomers to the downsized luxury community called Leisureland are Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) Safranek, who feel they have underachieved in the full-size world and want something more. Paul undergoes the procedure and wakes up to discover that Audrey backed out at the last minute and has essentially left him. Further, when he tries to adjust to his new surroundings, he finds that things aren’t the way they were portrayed in the sales literature. Despite making friends with a wealthy neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), Paul finds his life and new job as unsatisfying as before.


Gradually, Paul discovers the underside of life in Leisureland, namely, the community adjacent to the country club estates where the people, mainly minority groups, live who perform the cleaning and other menial jobs. In that somewhat squalid housing complex, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese refugee dissident who was forcibly shrunk by her own government, fled to the West, and then wound up working as a maid in Leisureland as a way of getting her out of the public eye. Paul, who had been pretty much of an apolitical nice guy before, winds up becoming more of an activist.


Paul’s meeting with Ngoc Lan marks the beginning of the evolution of his character into what writer/director Payne views as a better, more socially conscious person. Unfortunately, it also marks the beginning of the end of Downsizing as an entertaining satire as the movie goes down a befuddling storyline that has virtually nothing to do with the fact that the characters involved are only five inches tall.


The first hour or so of Downsizing is sharp satire, some of it hilarious, as the crassest aspects of our consumer culture are ridiculed by the notion that people are so desperate for the better life that they would permanently set themselves apart from society to live the good life. And, of course, the forced perspective shift really means that they don’t really have the life of luxury, it only seems as if they do, much like a person buying a cubic zirconium to impress others that it’s real. The reality, of course is that diamond chips and bits, fashioned into a miniature necklace or bracelet, are not all that valuable.


The best sequence in Downsizing involves the actual shrinking process. Payne provides elaborate detail of the entire process, which involves removing all body hair and teeth, as these won’t shrink with the rest of the body. Then, Paul and the other newly downsized people are scooped up with spatulas by full-sized technicians to be dumped on gurneys to be taken to their new homes. Once there, he has to wrestle with Audrey’s full-sized wedding ring that she sends him when they break up.


While the first half of Downsizing is incisive and frequently quite funny, after Paul’s conversion to activism, the laughs dry up (there are only a couple of shots involving giant props in the last hour of the film), and what we have left is something that seems to have stepped out of a 1970’s time capsule. Paul and Ngoc Lan go on a journey of self-discovery to Norway, home of the now-shrunken scientist who invented the Downsizing process, and the results seem like outtakes from Woodstock, filled with swaying and dancing and watching the sun set. Some of the things that the last hour of the film are not filled with include humor, drama, a realistic romance, or genuinely relevant social commentary. Instead, we get a “love the earth” message whose primary effect on me was to get me to scratch my head and wonder why Matt Damon had to shrink to five inches tall to learn this particular lesson.


The social message involved in Downsizing would have been dull if the story involved six-footers instead of five-inchers, making me wonder if the entire point of the film was to dupe people into attending based on some clever trailer moments. To make matters worse for a movie with a distinctly liberal social perspective, Ngoc Lan is saddled with an accent that sounds like a fifth grader trying out for The King and I. It’s the type of inappropriate Pidgin English we have seen and heard far too much of since World War II. The fact that a liberal filmmaker like Alexander Payne making a socially conscious pro-environmental message movie would allow this type of dialogue into his film reinforces the shallowness of Payne’s message.


Watching Downsizing made me actually start wondering how the film might have looked had the creators of the new Jumanji film taken a crack at it. Alexander Payne is, of course, a much better filmmaker than those associated with Jumanji. But what he’s created here is half a film that’s a provocative satire and a second half that seems to have been downsized to sheer nothingness. Downsizing is one movie that unfortunately shrinks itself almost from the start.  

In this scene, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern give prospective residents a sales pitch on the virtues of Leisureland.

Read other reviews of Downsizing: 

Downsizing (2017) on IMDb