Director - Alexander Payne
Cast - Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern
Rating - 4.5/5
Often, while watching a movie, it might surprise you with a moment of absolute clarity – it could be a line of dialogue, a scene, or a bit of music – that makes you wonder if it was a fluke. The cynicism is understandable because, as we can all agree, moments such as this are rarer than an understated Nicolas Cage performance.
However, this is not a thought that will cross your mind during Downsizing, the new movie by one of the finest living American filmmakers, Alexander Payne. It’s a movie that offers, by my admittedly shaky estimation, at least one idea of pure, unshackled brilliance every ten minutes. After a point -- I’d say it comes during a particularly jaw-dropping twist at the end of the first act -- you’re either going to feel massively cheated, or you’re going to be convinced you’re witnessing a work of genius.
Downsizing imagines a world of the future in which one thoroughly Scandinavian scientist (dishevelled, bespectacled, overweight, blonde) invents something that is described as “a bigger deal than the moon landing.” He creates a gizmo that, after the pull of a lever and the push of couple of buttons, can reduce the size of organic matter on a cellular level. If this were a ‘50s Ed Wood movie, we’d be calling his invention a ‘shrink ray’. So he points the thing at himself and 36 other ‘brave volunteers,’ and together, they become the world’s first small community.
And this is where Matt Damon comes in. He plays an Average Joe who used to have dreams but because of some bad luck (and a crippling lack of ambition) never got around to achieving them. Like millions of others like him, he’d seen the Scandinavian scientist’s presentation on TV years ago. And like millions of others who’ve witnessed similar remarkable inventions on TV screens over the years – from self-driving cars to virtual reality – he wondered if it would ever become a mass reality.
Soon, ‘going small’ emerges as a lifestyle choice. Communities of five-inch-tall people crop up all over the country, settlements that boast negligible crime rates and across-the-board happiness. Posters advocating the benefits of ‘downsizing’ pop up – by reducing yourself in size, you reduce your carbon footprint; you create less waste, you eat up fewer resources, and more enticingly, if you’re five inches tall, even “a diamond necklace set in platinum” won’t cost more than a $100.
Egged on by an old acquaintance who’d downsized more because of a mid-life crisis than any particular affinity for saving the planet, Damon’s character, Paul, decides to take the leap. A farewell party is organised, friends bid teary goodbyes, assets are liquidated and all of Paul’s teeth are removed. Five hours later, he’s welcomed to Leisureland, the most attractive of all communities for small people.
Downsizing will be divisive, no doubt. It is the sort of movie that constantly keeps reinventing itself every 30 minutes -- it goes from low-key comedy to high-concept satire to full-blown science fiction; it has the sheen of a big budget Hollywood tent-pole but the soul of, well, an Alexander Payne movie.
For those unfamiliar with his work, Payne’s movies are small-scale satires about relationships – fathers and sons (Nebraska), fathers and daughters (The Descendants), best friends (Sideways), even a retiree and his adopted Tanzanian child (About Schmidt). They all feature fairly successful white men who’ve just realised that life is long and miserable and can only be improved by a recklessly impulsive decision.
Downsizing is irrefutably his most ambitious film yet. Ironically for a movie whose central character is as big (or small, depending on your philosophy of life) as a can of Coke, the ideas he presents are some of the biggest he has ever tackled – sustainability, class, prejudice, and the very nature of existence.
One short scene in particular, aboard a bus segregated into two halves – one for the small and the other for the ‘normal’ people – is stunningly evocative. How could it not be?
And with the arrival of Ngoc Lan – a Vietnamese dissident shrunk against her will by her government, who’d illegally entered Leisureland inside a FedEx package – the movie makes yet another bold diversion from where it seemed like it was headed. As played by Hong Chau, it’s the film’s most outstanding performance which takes it (and Paul) towards a more grandiose conclusion than anyone would’ve anticipated. Even utopias, he learns, need someone to do the dirty work. There’s always someone to clean the puke off the floor after a rave and there’s always someone to be waved away when they approach you with a tray of food. Sometimes, that someone can be a brave young dissident who should have been writing books and appearing on television.
Downsizing is the sort of movie that will only improve with age, when many of the concepts it imagines turn into reality. Right now, it’s ahead of its time, understandably rejected by audiences (and in an unbelievable betrayal, also by the critics). They should pick on someone their own size.
Watch the Downsizing trailer here