Film Review: Downsizing

Experimental process leaves occupational therapist Paul Safranek five inches tall in a gentle sci-fi satire from director Alexander Payne.
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By turns exceptional and merely amusing, Downsizing applies director Alexander Payne's familiar themes to a science-fiction adventure. A script bursting with timely ideas and a breakout performance by Hong Chau are the best elements of a movie that can feel sidetracked at times.

Shot in the style of a brightly lit educational film, a sprightly prologue explains how Scandinavian scientists develop a process to miniaturize humans as an answer to overpopulation. At first a novelty, "downsizing" eventually leads to several colonies of little people across the world.

The main attraction for occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) is that their modest nest egg translates to a fortune in the small world. They leave their home in Omaha, Nebraska to undergo the procedure at Leisure Land in New Mexico in a sequence that makes great use of retro sci-fi visuals.

But the results force Paul to confront a host of problems, old and new, in his life. It also gives Payne and his co-writer and longtime collaborator Jim Taylor the chance to question contemporary life with both sharp jabs and gentle asides.

Class differences don't disappear in Leisure Land. If anything, they are exacerbated by elites like black marketeer Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who casually oppresses workers housed in an off-site ghetto. One of them is Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who escapes imprisonment, forced miniaturization and the loss of her leg "so now she can clean my house," as Dusan puts it.

Downsizing makes its political points quickly, like a barroom argument that little people should only get one-eighth of a vote, or the huge wall that separates workers from Leisure Land mansions.

Rather than hit easy targets, Payne and Taylor are more interested in what happens to Paul, who tries romance, hedonism, religion and whatever other system he can find in an effort to bring meaning and happiness to his life.

Paul's journey through an unfriendly world echoes ones in Payne's earlier movies like Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska. Downsizing gives answers that mainstream viewers probably don't want to hear, and it does so with a rigorous logic that requires a lot more concentration than most Hollywood releases.

But Downsizing offers extraordinary rewards. With her imperious tone and pidgin English, Tran may strike some as an uncomfortable stereotype. But the script adds intriguing layers to her character, and Chau's performance is simply phenomenal. She is joined by Payne veterans like Laura Dern in an extremely strong cast.

Phedon Papamichael's classical lensing, Rolfe Kent's smart score and Stefania Cella's intriguing production design give Downsizing a hyper-realistic feel in which special effects are comparatively unimportant. Not all of the subplots and tangents in the movie feel entirely successful. But any filmmaker who can be this entertaining while raising such important topics deserves all the support he can get.

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