There are some sci-fi stories that will never make it to the big screen simply because no director could abandon their vanity long enough to make them. Luckily, Alexander Payne, our great auteur of American banality, is more than willing to look a little silly in order to make a point. Downsizing, a film in which successful movie stars Matt Damon and Jason Sudeikis are not only rendered the size of action figures, but made to wear khakis while doing so, is more equipped to address the human-scale smallness that fuels society-scale inequality than most films. It rides its premise from the suburbs of Omaha to the fjords of Norway, and though there may be more than a few stops along the way where other writers would wrap things up, Payne presses on, determined — for the first time in a while — to find a note of optimism to land on.
It’s either the near future or an alternate present, and the great new hope for our planet is downsizing, a permanent procedure that not only shrinks human bodies, but effectively their footprint and cost of living as well. This creates a whole new class of people who have opted to “go small” — there are Small sections on airplanes, and entire Small colonies where everyone can afford a dream house. (My skeptical side kicked in here — how easy would it be to commit a mass atrocity on a city the size of a drug store?) Floundering Omaha physical therapist Paul Safranek gets his first face-to-face encounter with a Tiny when his old college buddy Dave (Jason Sudeikis) shows up at a reunion at 1/500 scale, and extols the ease and wonder of his new lifestyle. Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to take the plunge and ship off to Leisureland, one of the premiere Small communities.
It’s with no pleasure that I spoil the fact that this is not a Kristen Wiig film; Audrey chickens out of the procedure at the last minute and the film becomes fully Paul’s, a tiny, involuntary bachelor adrift in the frictionless ease of Leisureland. He makes friends with his bon vivant European neighbors played by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, who hold sprawling ragers in their penthouse. (Nobody makes debauchery look less fun than Payne.) It’s after one such rager that he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) a Vietnamese refugee who came to the United States stowed away inside a TV, and who now lives in a hovel just outside Leisureland’s walls, cleaning houses for a living. It turns out that even within the economy of the downsizing revolution, there are haves and have-nots. When Waltz’s Duman and Ngoc Lan are summoned to Norway by the pioneer of downsizing, they are presented with yet another opportunity to insulate themselves from the hardships of the world.
There’s been some divided criticism over Chau’s performance, which uses a heavy accent, but is also easily the most interesting and vibrant of the entire cast’s. Ngoc Lan is operating from an entire different scale of human experience than Paul, whose greatest struggle prior to going small was that he and his wife couldn’t afford a bigger house. But Chau does her best to find interesting nooks in the borderline saintly character Payne has written — Ngoc Lan is more than a little abrasive and unsentimental, which is the only redeeming aspect of her and Paul’s wholly unnecessary romance.
There is a version of Downsizing that could have been more of Chau’s film, whose story is certainly more dramatic and high-stakes than Paul’s. I appreciate that Payne is more interested in blowing out a middle-class American perspective, and its perpetual victimhood narrative. But Damon is completely forgettable here — I suspect that’s by design, but nothing about him commands you watch him the way you watch Chau or Waltz. Duman is a whole other story — never fully villainous but also made callous by his ease of life. This could have easily been a two-hander, a story about Duman and his housekeeper facing the end of the world together. But Payne’s devotion to banality, here in the form of tiny, khaki-clad Matt Damon, holds him back this time. There’s only so much smallness one movie can take.