Like “Baby Driver,” “Downsizing” is a movie that looked absolutely stupid in trailers but turned out to be something else entirely on the silver screen. It is not just Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis trading off quips about being less than 12 inches tall for 120 minutes. It’s an inventive, masterful cinematic story, one that progresses calmly on a plot river flowing from a single question: “What would happen to society if humans could shrink themselves?”
That question itself isn’t bizarre, but it is strange that director Alexander Payne is asking it. Best known for “Election,” “Sideways” and “The Descendants,” Payne has a penchant for not necessarily world-building but people-building. The characters in his stories are too hyper-focused on their own quarrels and misery to think about others. Who cares about Trump when the tyrant Tracy Flick might be elected class president? And who has time to think about the starving children in Africa when Jack is forcing us to a terrifying, Merlot-filled dinner with Maya and Stephanie?
The only one of Payne’s major films that focuses on a larger political topic is “Citizen Ruth.” “While “Citizen Ruth” saw opposing political groups use a single person to further their own pro-life/pro-choice efforts, “Downsizing’s” Paul Safranek and Audrey Safranek (played by Kristen Wiig) use a massive political issue just to further themselves. They claim they care about the environment, but the real reason they’re downsizing is to get the bigger house they can’t afford in real life.
You can’t really hold it against them, as any lower-or-middle class family would shrink sizes in a heartbeat to get their hands on that easily-obtainable “Leisureland” luxury. Some people work in Leisureland, but the career of choice is relaxation, where days are spent learning languages, playing tennis and choosing between one of three different Cheesecake Factory’s. When Paul gets dropped off in front of his McMansion for the first time, a Leisureland employee thanks him for helping the environment. In that moment, you can almost taste Paul choking on his own shame.
But Leisureland isn’t just for relaxing and chain restaurants, there’s douchey, drug-filled parties that have to be thrown! One of these partiers is Dusan Mirkovic, a lavishly wealthy European played by Christoph Waltz, whose apartment noisily occupies the entire floor above Paul’s. Dusan’s biggest struggle in life isn’t finding beautiful models to fill his apartment, but figuring out how he’s going to spend his day after his last guest does the walk-of-shame out his front door.
But the movie really gets going when Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran, Dusan’s cleaning lady and a former small activist. Played by Hong Chau, Ngoc serves as moral heart of the film, a “real world problem” wrapped in flesh and bone. Through Tran, we learn that downsizing has produced the same regular sized problems of inequality, with poor huddled into a cramped shelter without food or necessary medical care. In an obvious metaphor to the US/Mexico border, the poorer small people live on the outside wall of the Leisureland colony where they are neither seen nor heard.
It is a sudden jolt in plot, where we go from examining how these people managed to avoid real world problems by going small, to how they also continue to avoid small world problems by pretending they aren’t real. Payne and Rash don’t preach or condemn, they aren’t activists as much as anthropologists, carefully crafting and examining their fictional world, extrapolating the most logical location they should explore next.
That’s what makes “Downsizing” a rewarding experience, the fact that what is always “next” is never what we expect. The movie and the camera always makes us aware that its characters are smaller than the majority of the human race, but never to overbearing means. And the plot’s progression is slow but has important details lurking in those finessed seconds. No moment is wasted to explain some sort of prejudice that the tall have against the short, or how a cigar or rose would look in the small world.
The only downside to downsizing is its characters. Paul never really climbs out of his “nice guy” role. Waltz goes through no character development whatsoever, but his character was also never really designed to evolve. Only Ngoc Lan Tran is interesting and that’s because she’s so selfless, but even she seems a bit one-note in her do-goodyness. Still, they serve as worthy vessels to voyage into “Downsizing,” a film that brilliantly depicts what happens when our best intentions don’t stand tall.