Film

In 'Downsizing' Shrinking Means Big Money and Bigger Problems

Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis in Downsizing (2017) (Photo by Photo credit: Paramount Pictures - © 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

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.

Downsizing
Alexander Payne

Paramount

22 Dec 2017

Other

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!"


Margo Martindale in Downsizing (2017) (© 2017 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.) (IMDB)

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?

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.