Downsizing starts with a fun premise: What if you could make humans really small so our impact on the earth is also really small? It’s a great jumping off point for a silly comedy, but what makes Alexander Payne’s (Nebraska, Sideways) new film Downsizing work is that it winds up being more than that. Matt Damon stars as everyman Paul Safranek who’s convinced that he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) can have a better life as tiny people. More money, a bigger house, more leisure, (and yeah, save the planet.) But after he’s already downsized, she backs out and he’s left all alone in tiny town. Fortunately for the audience, he soon meets two new friends: the irrepressible Dusan (Christop Waltz, Inglourious Basterds), his upstairs neighbor and man of multiple schemes, and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau Treme, Inherent Vice), a former Vietnamese dissident and now Dusan’s one-legged housekeeper who drags Paul into a more interesting life. Not that Matt Damon isn’t good, it’s just that these two steal the show.
In his former life Paul was an occupational therapist, and he enjoyed it, but in his new life, he’s stuck in an online sales job and he’s dying for something more exciting. He finds it upstairs at one of his neighbor’s over-the-top parties. Dusan is all about grabbing the brass ring and bringing Paul into his circle. When Paul wakes up on Dusan’s floor after having way too much fun at the party, he recognizes one of the women cleaning the place. It’s Ngoc Lan Tran who became famous for criticizing the Vietnamese government’s use of downsizing as a way to punish political prisoners, and he wants to get to know her and, as an OT, help her with her ill-fitting prosthetic leg. She talks him into coming to her apartment to help a friend, bringing him into her own tiny world, where people are not all rich or white or living large. And this is where the movie takes off and Paul finds his purpose. Dusan is still part of the picture, but it’s the Paul and Ngoc Lan story that takes center stage.
The script by Payne and longtime writing partner Jim Taylor is light sci-fi comedy with a social conscience and the technical aspects of the tiny world and the downsizing are all done really well. But the big revelation of Downsizing is actress Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan. She’s funny and caustic and sweet, and she grows on you (and Paul) as the film goes along. The film isn’t perfect. It’s a bit long and the story meanders a bit, but it is ultimately a fun ride. If you’re looking for a little comedy in the season of big films, look no further.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I’m generally a fan of Alexander Payne films, which often manage to straddle the arty/mainstream divide. But I wasn’t feeling Downsizing, certainly not nearly as much as Arty Chick. It’s not particularly funny, so it doesn’t work as a comedy. Kristen Wiig is totally wasted (the marketing makes it seem like she’d be a larger part of the film); and I didn’t buy into the relationship between Paul and Ngoc Lan until it was too late to care. To me, Downsizing is heavy-handed social satire that falls a bit flat, despite the presence of the ever-likeable everyman, Matt Damon. -hb]