Just imagine you’re a character in Alexander Payne’s circuitous and occasionally perceptive new comedy Downsizing: You were pre-med, but you dropped out of school to take care of your mother. Now you’re an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. You and your wife are treading water both economically and in your relationship. But still, you face every day with just enough gee-whiz optimism that life never quite turns into a grind. But then, something happens. Some Swedish researchers figured out a way to shrink the average human down to a mere five inches tall without any adverse side effects. There are risks to avoid, like not leaving metal fillings in during the shrinking process (exploding heads, you know).
The good news for the planet is that the procedure means shrunk people use a fraction of the resources that everyone else does. As the inventors posit while traveling the Aspen and Davos lecture circuit: Shrinking people might be the planet’s last chance to escape environmental devastation. The good news for you: Once shrunk, your paltry financial resources explode to Brobdingnagian proportions. No, being the size of a dog’s chew toy might not be to everybody’s taste, but it’s certainly a shortcut to a kind of upper middle-class luxury unobtainable for most of humanity. Around $150k in real-world money translates into $12.5 million in the little planned communities of the downsized. That buys a lot of McMansion. As the indelibly happy Dave (Jason Sudeikis) crows to occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon), “Cheesecake Factory? We’ve got three of ’em!”
A science-fiction goof that turns into a First-World morality tale, Downsizing is an unusually sprawling concept for Payne to tackle. In the past, he’s plowed a narrow field with lacerating comedies like Election and Nebraska about the disastrous but eventually revelatory things that happen when average joes find themselves in abnormal situations. There are familiar elements in Downsizing. Damon’s Paul is another of Payne’s modest and unassuming Midwestern guys who act on the outside as though everything is just dandy but are slowly collapsing within. He’s not the sharpest and neither is his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), so when they decide to “get small” as a way of escaping the crush of their financial burdens, unforeseen complications seem assured. The first wrinkle leaves Paul alone in Leisureland’s generic sprawl of miniaturized chain stores, knocking around in his empty two-story house without much reason to get up in the morning. The second wrinkle reveals that life in the paradise of McMansions isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Where Downsizing starts to get interesting is in Paul’s transition from happy miniature cog in the consumerist machine to a seeker of some broader truth. He starts out on his quest without even knowing what he’s doing, just attending an impromptu rave thrown by his upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christopher Waltz) that’s so creepy chic Udo Kier can be seen lurking around. Exhibiting a skeevy but friendly Euro-disco variation on Dave’s Midwestern live-it-up attitude towards the life of plenty, Dusan inadvertently awakens Paul’s hunger for a change. A chance encounter with Vietnamese cleaning woman and activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) and a visit to her tiny little slum outside Leisureland’s walls further opens Paul’s eyes to the fact that the class system didn’t exactly disappear when people were shrunk. It’s like a Marxist spin on The Truman Show, where the set decorations fall away and reveal the capitalist machinery behind every quick-fix’s false promises.
Payne wrings a lot out of Tran in the last third of the movie. He uses her blunt and acerbic manner to jolt Paul and the somewhat listless story forward with direct action. There’s a good chance that Tran’s abrupt brand of broken English will get the wrong kind of laughs out of certain crowds. But there’s at least some decent comedy to be had in the way she yanks Paul this way and that on her various missions tending to people’s needs. At the end of a long day, Paul—not so secretly thrilled to finally be of use—asks meekly, “We go home?” “Nah,” she responds. “We go church. Pray Jesus.”
Downsizing is littered with the lure of pseudo-religious false utopias, whether endless consumerism or the idealistic belief that going small is helping save the planet. It views and discards each of them on the way to a bleak and downbeat conclusion that brings a harsher edge to the preceding social satire. For what does it mean for a man like Paul to finally gain understanding about how things work if the world is doomed anyway?