‘Downsizing’ Review: Small is Definitely Beautiful in Alexander Payne’s Quirky Comedy

Downsizing is the new film from writer and director Alexander Payne. In the near future, Norwegian scientists invent a method of shrinking people down to a tiny size. They encourage the entire world’s population to do this as it will radically reduce their environmental impact on the earth. Another added benefit is that resources become much more abundant when the people using them have shrunk. The exchange rate converts savings of thousands into a fortune of millions.

Matt Damon is Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist for whom nothing ever seems to go right. He does, however, love his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and is very enthusiastic about the prospect of finding new meaning in a miniaturised world.

Part of the joy of the film is the pure fun of exploring such a brilliantly original concept. Seeing the interaction between big people and small people is fascinating. Little girls use coke bottle lids as sleds, Polaroid pictures become massive wall paintings, and single rose heads become unwieldy centrepieces for a room. The economy of miniaturising is explored as small people pay much less taxes but still hold one vote each, whilst black marketeers can purchase a single Cuban cigar, slit it open, re-roll the tobacco and sell small cigars for a dollar a piece.

The process of miniaturising is also fantastic. We see the subjects undergoing a rigorous process to be shrunk down. There’s something brilliantly comical about seeing a nurse scrape the newly miniaturised men off their beds like cookies off a baking tray.

This new world is explored from the perspective of Paul, who is a wonderful audience surrogate because he’s so naturally enchanted by the wonders his tiny existence has to offer. He’s also a loveably naïve character who means well but is constantly behind everyone else. He’s very endearing.

Paul encounters extraordinary people brought to life by seasoned character actors. Wiig is wonderfully understated as Damon’s anxious wife, who helpfully makes use of her considerable comedic chops. Christoph Waltz is irresistibly charming as the dodgy playboy who lives above Damon in the miniature city. Also, Udo Kier is in it.

Hong Chau stands out as Ngoc Lan Tran. She’s a downsized Vietnamese war prisoner who managed to escape her captors by smuggling herself into the country inside a FedEx box. She’s incredibly powerful in her role as she convincingly commands Damon’s character into action. She’s assertive, determined and kind.

The story can sometimes be problematic. When the action moves to the miniature city, one might feel a slight dip in the novelty of spending time with these tiny characters  as there’s no longer a larger world, full of larger people to offer contrast. Fortunately the tiny society and its burgeoning inequalities are interesting enough to hold our attention until the next excursion into the suddenly alien world. There are also a tremendous amount of contrivances to keep the plot moving, though this does get addressed within the film, somewhat unsatisfactorily.

Downsizing is the perfect high concept comedy that is as emotional as it is intelligent. I’m reminded of The Truman Show and am sure it will be equally appreciated as a cult classic. It’s wonderful to see Payne explore other genres without sacrificing his signature charm and affinity for character driven comedy.

5 / 5

Paul Salt is the co-host of One Good Thing.

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