In Praise Of ‘Downsizing’ And Comedy That Doesn’t Pretend To Have The Answers

Downsizing sounds like an alternate title of Up In The Air, and the term is such a frequent euphemism for other things — firing people, moving to a tiny house — that treating it as literally as possible is kind of a wild idea. A wild enough idea to build an entire movie around, if you’re Alexander Payne (and his co-writer, Jim Taylor). Downsizing posits a world where a Norwegian scientist (the Monty Pythonly named “Jorgen Asbjørnsen”) has invented a shrink ray — or more of a shrink microwave, really — that can reduce organic matter to about a thousandth of its size. Why would he want to do that? Well, since we can’t enlarge the Earth and its finite resources, maybe we can shrink ourselves to make them last longer.

We’re conditioned these days to assume that the stakes of any story are the whole world, which goes double in a story with an environmentalist conceit. But Downsizing isn’t about saving the world. Or at least, it would never let a character saying they’re trying to save the world go unexamined. It’s hard not to search for a “message” in a movie like Downsizing, which is ostensibly about the environment, but Downsizing is neither an environmentalist’s screed nor a skewering of environmentalist rhetoric. It simply builds a world and tries to imagine Matt Damon living in it. If Downsizing skewers anything, it’s the expectation that a comedy film should have all the answers. We’ve propped up the comedian as ultimate truth-teller in the current pop culture epoch, but even if that’s true, the ultimate truth is that we’re all searching for meaning in an absurd universe and we’re all just as confused about where to find it, comedians or otherwise.

Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek (Suh-FRON-ic, not SAF-ruh-nik), who wanted to be a surgeon but had to stay home to take care of his mother with fibromyalgia. He left his pre-med track early and now he’s an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks. He still lives in the crappy house he grew up in with his wife, played by Kristen Wiig, and at his 25th high school reunion he reconnects with Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) who has downsized with his wife and in the process has become a big hit at the party. Dave preaches the tiny man gospel to Paul, making it sound a bit like a twelve-step program to fulfillment and financial security, all while drinking a tiny beer atop an Ak-Mak box. It’s one of frankly not nearly enough silly sight gags. Sudeikis is perfect casting as the content suburbanite too, almost obnoxiously well put together, but not in an intimidatingly handsome, Don Draper kind of way.

The point of Dave’s pitch is, though, what if your money was suddenly worth a thousand times more? Downsizing is more high concept than metaphor, but if there’s one aspect of the plot that hits close to home, it’s Paul realization that the only way he’s ever going to be able to afford a better life is by shrinking himself down. It imagines a reverse American dream, where rather than increasing your capacity to consume, you shrink consumption down to your capacity. Maybe that’s it, that the path to happiness isn’t to “dream big,” but instead, shrink the dream down until it fits in your pocket.

That’s the rub though: Downsizing isn’t really about the world or even saving the environment. It’s far more concerned with human nature, and the story hinges largely on Paul’s search for fulfillment. Once he’s been shrunk down to size (along the way there’s a sublime sight gag involving what I can only describe as a “man spatula”) and moved to the “Leisureland Estates,” one of many new amenity-filled tiny people retirement villages, Paul realizes, wouldn’t you know it, that most of his problems have come with him. Maybe it wasn’t all about his money and lifestyle. Maybe it’s about finding fulfillment. Maybe it’s about humanity’s inborn drive for consumption, or our endless capacity to exploit each other, or that our only yardstick for success is other people doing worse. Some will surely criticize Downsizing for being “convoluted” or a “mixed bag,” but there’s something beautiful about the way the film itself wrestles with what true fulfillment means the same way Paul does.

Paul also meets some new people, including his new neighbor Dusan Mirkovic, played by Christoph Waltz, a Serbian “businessman,” and Ngoc Lan Tran, played by Hong Chau, a Vietnamese dissident who lost her foot in a tragic TV box accident at Target. The last third of the film is a bit of a letdown in terms of the last, and part of me wishes there’d been even more sight gags and even more jokes at the expense of chain stores (Target, Olive Garden, Tony Roma’s, Omaha Steaks, and The Cheesecake Factory all make cameos). But Alexander Payne (Election, About Schmidt, Nebraska) has always been as much about pathos as yuks. There’ll be laughs along the way, but his storytelling is an exercise in soul-searching, not punchline writing.

The film becomes largely about the relationship between Paul and Tran, which is mildly disappointing. But the upside is that Hong Chau steals the entire movie. There will inevitably be a few thinkpieces about the film leaning on her funny accent for comedy, or about their awkward first kiss, but Chau, previously seen in Inherent Vice and Treme, imbues her character with a greater emotional depth than anyone else in the movie, and the transitions between them are pitch perfect. She’s wonderful.

Like life, Downsizing drags a bit in the last third and it isn’t nearly as fun at the end as it is at the beginning, but there are some incredible moments along the way (including a few sight gags that the pretentious film student in me might call Jacques Tati-esque). A large part of the fun of Downsizing is that it’s not constantly trying to tell you “this is what downsizing really means” or trying to fit its silliness into a one-to-one allegory machine. Sometimes it’s comedy, sometimes it’s tragedy, and like the universe, any grand theory of it only cheapens it.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.