Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has been out long enough that you’re unlikely at this point to go into it cold. At the very least, you’ve probably seen the trailer: Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide the best way to make the most of their meager savings is to “downsize” and have their bodies shrunk to five inches in height so they can live in the miniaturized Leisureland where even the lower-middle class Safraneks qualify as millionaires.
If you know anything beyond this, you probably have read that the film 1) is Payne’s weakest and 2) fails to capitalize on the enticing premise in the preview. I’m here to report that both of these assertions are true. Payne demonstrates as much heart as ever, but he and frequent writing partner Jim Taylor demonstrate a shocking inability to wed their ideas to the sci-fi concept.
The tantalizing preview does a bit of a disservice to final film. It frames Downsizing as a laugh-out-loud comedy with a sidekick and possible third-act villain in Jason Sudeikis. It also downsizes the time spent explaining the sci-fi aspect, rendering tedious the film’s belabored reveals of the same moments. All of Sudeikis’s scenes (as well as a one-off Neil Patrick Harris appearance) are contained in the trailer. International party host Dusan (Christoph Waltz) is barely featured and no mention is made of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) though both are central characters of the second half of the film. And the trailer pointedly doesn’t reveal that Payne and Taylor lose all interest in the central conceit by the midpoint of the film.
Payne’s films are famous for their dark humanism, and on paper Downsizing shows a lot of promise in mixing this worldview with the science fiction elements. “You’re a nice guy,” Dusan tells Paul, “But you’re kind of pathetic.” Paul is prime Payne protagonist. He prioritizes being nice ahead of everything, including his own interests. He takes care of his mother, who suffers from fibromyalgia, and later his wife who appears to suffer migraines. “Give me all the weight,” he tells her as he gently cups her head.
Paul has lived his whole life in the same house in Omaha, working as an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, failing to make good on the two years he spent in medical school. There’s a sense that he deserves to move up the social ranks. He’s spent his life caring for other people, but doing so has been a duty and a burden (his mother complains, both she and his wife reject the takeout food he brings home). When the Safraneks find they can’t afford the house they want and struggle to keep up with the monthly bills, they jump at the chance to “get small” and of cash in their life’s efforts for the upper-class lifestyle.
But Audrey abandons Paul and elects at the last minute to stay in the “big” world. A year later, Paul has screwed himself in the divorce proceedings and given up his dream mansion for a (relatively) modest apartment. He works as over-the-phone tech support, helping people in both the big and small worlds. As a voluntary denizen of a city called Leisureland, Dusan’s assessment of him as “pathetic” rings true (although it may be more accurate to say he’s pathetic in a different way from the hedonist Dusan).
Paul finds a whole new world to help through Lan Tran, who enlists him in bringing expired food and medicine from the houses of the rich to a tiny slum that has sprung up from immigrants and political refugees who were downsized against their will. Lan Tran herself is a miniaturized political dissident who lost her foot escaping from Viet Nam in a TV box. When Paul accidentally breaks her artificial foot trying to make it more ergonomic, he becomes her means of completing her errands, and finds himself bringing food to the mini-barrio and cleaning the houses of the wealthy.
It’s this section where Payne leaves behind the promise of the trailer more or less for good, and shows a lack of interest in the conceit in the first place. A wealthy society, no matter how small, is going to be built on the backs of somebody, point made, but where did the miniature items for this sub-society come from? Dusan mentions how much of his wealth now comes from miniaturizing luxury items so they’re available in the small world. The homes of the barrito are cluttered, nonetheless. Why not show these residents forced to make do with large items? Aside from a big screen TV becoming the central TV for the village and a quick shot of an oversized tambourine, the barrito exists completely outside the film’s high concept.
Soon (and on the back of a great monologue delivery by Hong Chau that barely keeps the story mechanics from immediately locking up) Paul and Lan Tran accompany Dusan on a trip to the original colony of miniaturized people in Norway. Here we learn that the downsizing process has come too late to ease the burden on the world. Methane emissions over the Antarctic cannot be reversed and the human race will eventually go extinct as a result. The inventor of downsizing has created a large vault inside a mountain for the original colony to occupy and continue the human race for the next several hundred years. Environmental disaster is a thematic connection to our high concept, but the solution is strangely divorced from it. Presumably (though not explicitly) downsizing allows a population to survive sealed in a mountain vault, but the only question left is whether Paul – now recently Lan Tran’s lover – will join them instead of living out his life in Leisureland.
Nothing past the first third of the film couldn’t be done in a movie without the downsizing. It’s like an hour-long film about a man deciding whether or not to seal himself in a vault with strangers to avoid extinction was paired with a compelling but incomplete short about magical shrinking technology. The film’s abandonment of its premise sinks the film as a piece of entertainment. But what’s worse, the film is crippled thematically by the same.
(I warned of spoilers) At the last minute (and just before the film’s only remaining but possibly funniest sight gag), Paul escapes the mountain group and rejoins Lan Tran. He returns to the barrito of Leisureland and delivers food to one of the elderly residents. Payne is always conscientious about his final shots and here Paul turns to regard the elderly man again in a manner that recalls Jack Nicholson’s last moment in About Schmidt some years ago.
Except, while Schmidt‘s final shot is still touched with nuance, we aren’t left confused by what Schmidt is experiencing. Paul Safranek’s final moment is much more opaque. We’ve seen Paul’s journey from codependency to refusing a larger call to help because he wanted something for himself (love, natch). He’s gone from nice but pathetic to simply nice. This would be fine were Paul’s character not undone by the premise left behind.
If the Paul of the first part of the film abandons his life of service for a life of luxury (a decision that is immediately reversed), what does the Paul of the second part hope to gain by abandoning this life to live in a mountain? He insists he’s doing it because he finally has a chance to make a difference for the human race throughout history (as a sidenote, I think he’s really overvaluing his DNA among a population of hearty Scandinavians). By the end he’s supposedly learned to make a difference to those immediately around him rather than try to help on a global scale. But if trying to help the world at the expense of the neighborhood was his character’s flaw, why wasn’t his decision to downsize tied to the environmental aspect? Why show him deliberating over bills and failing to qualify for a house loan? And anyway, helping those around him (his mother, his wife, the fine employees of Omaha Steaks) was Paul’s lot in life in the first place, and that was presented as his problem. Just as the film has two mismatched halves, we’re left with two Pauls that don’t quite line up.
Alexander Payne is a thoughtful filmmaker and his ideas are worthy of this kind of scrutiny. His style of filmmaking – he typically uses no storyboards and comes up with the shots on set – may not lend itself to stories that require special effects, even the unflashy ones used here. Subsequently shrinking the film’s ambitions may have made him more comfortable, but too much got left behind in the transition.
– Speaking as a dude from Omaha, I can say Paul’s story strikes me as potentially more relatable, but certainly not worthy of upstaging the tale of a political prisoner who loses a foot escaping persecution in a giant TV box. There’s several ways to measure how Downsizing comes up short, but this might be the smallest thinking of all.
– However, as a dude from Omaha, I’m always a fan of Payne’s treatment of the city as a specific place. Special props to the line about looking for a house in Benson, though Paul and Audrey should have tried before the gentrification started.
– Plus, as a dude from Omaha, I say it’s a little ironic that the Safraneks moved from there since the city is home to many people who earned their money elsewhere and downsized to Omaha where their dollar has more buying power.
– Uh… Omaha.