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Don’t read about Alexander Payne’s Downsizing before you go into it. In fact, try not to read too much further into this piece. I know, that’s odd to say, but truly, the less you know about Payne’s premise, the better. Know this: I dug Downsizing. So much. But I acknowledge that it’s strange. Like, unapologetically weird and unconcerned about fitting into any type of formula. And I don’t agree with all of its choices. But I deeply admire Payne’s willingness to follow his narrative to all of the unexpected places that it took him, co-writer Jim Taylor and, ultimately, us. Take this journey. It’s worth the trip.
We are always chasing happiness, when its usually right in front of us. Downsizing takes a long detour to reach that conclusion (at least, I think that’s one of its main conclusions), but the joy is in the movie’s many left turns. With Downsizing, Payne delivers a contemplative, intelligent satire reminiscent of Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and Nebraska. And like those films, it ponders huge questions by using a small gimmick.
OK, I think I can give this much away. In a not-so-distant future, scientists have addressed global population and all its repercussions with a groundbreaking solution. They figure out how to shrink people. It’s a long-term societal conversion, but it has immediate effects… the way many overnight, self-help proposals do. We eventually meet Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig), two staid and unsatisfied Midwesterners who — after researching — decide to go “small.” Things don’t go well.
That’s as far as I’m willing to go, because Downsizing springboards into so many interesting, controversial, obvious and difficult topics of conversation from this basic sci-fi premise, and a large part of the fun is being surprised by Payne and Taylor’s originality. There’s incredible world-building in Downsizing that I constantly marveled at, even as I chuckled at the ludicrously low-fi nature of Payne’s “special” effects. (Intentional, always, and hilariously entertaining.)
Downsizing works as a sci-fi trial run, asking, and then proving, how poorly a possible global to the world’s various problems could go wrong. But I’m also amazed at how gracefully Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor wade into contemporary issues, such as the rights of immigrants, without being heavy handed. (“Smalls,” it is argued, aren’t viewed the same as “normals” because they don’t contribute the same amount to our economy, even though they are contributing a sliver of waste and thereby saving our planet.) And Payne’s takes particular aim at empty self-help promise sessions, the programs that tell you how much greener the grass can be on the proverbial “other side.” Downsizing has a brilliant trick up its sleeve with regards to reaching one’s supposed “Happy Place,” and when it lands, it firmly establishes Downsizing on its unexpectedly dark track, producing shocking – and funny – results.
Matt Damon is an affable and stoic host through this increasingly unusual journey, spending more time reacting to the script’s zany turns than causing many of them. Cameos abound in Downsizing, with the standout supporting turns belonging to Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau… though I’d prefer not to tell you who they play at the moment. Downsizing isn’t an actors’ showcase. The sizzle is found in the unique construction of Payne’s sci-fi vision. If you don’t buy into that, you won’t buy into the movie as a whole.
Downsizing is enormously ambitious, packed with hilarious and smart ideas. It can also be viewed as the quintessential mid-life crisis movie, contemplating how cyclical life’s journey can be, and how much things stay the same, no matter what we do, externally, to change. I loved Downsizing the longer it went on. It’s not safe. It’s not easy. It might not be for everyone. But it worked so well for me.
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