I admit, the lukewarm reviews of Alexander Payne’s latest movie, Downsizing, discouraged me. After seeing it though, I’m perplexed by the slew of negative reactions. Downsizing, although not a perfectly polished film like his 2005 masterpiece Sideways, is without a doubt Payne’s most ambitious and thoughtful political and social satire. I’ll explain why this is a great film – a twenty-first century Gulliver’s Travels.
Downsizing starts off with an ingenious high concept where the world is introduced to a new technology devised by a Norwegian scientist where people can shrink down to Tom Thumb size and live in tiny villages where their money and resources go much much further. The drive behind the creation is to save the planet from the population bomb. The technology develops into a fad however as it’s marketed to people as an environmentally conscious lifestyle. The narrative follows American everyman Paul (Matt Damon), and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who are lured by the adverts pitch. Paul undergoes the procedure, but Audrey panics and backs out at the last second. So Paul ends up alone in Leisureland, a miniaturized city.
Audiences expect the film at this point to be a kind of comedy of errors about a Tom Thumb’s marriage to a full sized woman, but the story has much greater ambitions by pulling the rug out. Paul is a vehicle to explore the satirical elements of Leisureland, built as a mostly white upper-middle class American suburb. It’s a cupcake land, kind of whitopia to fulfill the financial and lifestyle goals of some adults who can’t get ahead in the full-sized world where wages are stagnant and the middle class is eroding. It’s marketed as eco-friendly, echoing green marketing around plug-in cars and solar energy, which remain economically prohibitive to most.
But it turns out that Leisureland is not different from the full-sized world. It maintains the economic and social inequality underlying the facade of opulence of globalizing neoliberalism. Paul ends up befriending his neighbor, Serbian Dusan (Cristoph Waltz), who introduces Paul to the playboy lifestyle of a smuggler (who can convert a 50 dollar Cuban cigar into 2000 one dollar Cuban cigars). And it’s here that Paul also meets the hobbled Ngoc Lan Tran, (played by Hong Chau, who steals every scene), a Vietnamese dissident who survived being smuggled in a television box. It turns out there is a darker side to downsizing where people – governments for instance – use the technology to reduce the size of their political opponents or voices of dissent.
The population bomb has exploded, however and the planet is in deep trouble. Methane is exploding from under the arctic permafrost meaning the tipping point of the global climate and possibly a catastrophic extinction event on Earth. By the time Paul arrives in Norway to meet the founder of the shrink-a-dink technology, he finds a commune settling down in a post-apocalyptic bolt hole for the next few centuries. It’s a survival strategy best suited only for people five inches tall, and kind of means, if it really is extinction in the out world, that the only people in the distant future will ever be little Thumbs and Thumbelinas. Paul has a choice – the brave new miniature world or facing the chaos and doom of life along with the tiny masses. He chooses the later. It’s the proverbial let go and let God moment. The saying “life is what happens when you’re making other plans” is not truer of any other film maker. And it’s in the finding of the kind of soul of life that is at the center of Payne’s films, and true of Downsizing’s hero who not only downsized physically, but downsized his outsized expectations, and in some way grew bigger, and more soulfully engaged with the world.
In some ways Downsizing picks up a thread from Payne’s About Schmidt, a film which strikes the same keys better, where Jack Nicholson plays another type of small man who’s dragged through hell. Schmidt is a recently retired life insurance salesman who has seen the world pass him by. Then his retirement plans are thwarted when his wife suddenly dies, only to then posthumously discover his wife was unfaithful. To make things worse, his daughter is marrying a doofus with a doofus-er family he wants no part of. About Schmidt turns into a road movie where the titular drives across Nebraska with the aim of thwarting the wedding. It turns into an existential crisis where bit by bit Schmidt breaks down, bearing witness to the erosion of his life’s dreams.
Schmidt, while is sarcastic, grumpy, and acts out, has a shadow side. He sponsors an orphan in Africa names N’Dugu. And it’s his letters to six-year old N’Dugu that he’s able to confess the true feelings he has about the middle class life he’s been striving for – the gold watch he never won and which was never there to begin with. When he gets a letter back from a sister at the orphanage it does several things to put his life in context, and shines a light of blessing and grace on Schmidt. In the last scene of the film, N’Dugu’s drawing reaffirms to Schmidt that despite all his own evaluations about his own life, he, like Downsizing’s Paul, is what he always really wanted to be – a good man.