Many movies have wrestled with end of the world scenarios and how humans have impacted the environment. But few have done it in such an absurd and endearing manner as has Downsizing, the Alexander Payne film that sees the world tackling the problem of overpopulation by shrinking people down to about five inches tall.
I use the word absurd to describe the film not to deride it, but to put you in the place you need to be to see the film. Payne brilliant leans into the inherent silliness of the story (the sight gags are amazing) in order to give the story the emotional connection it needs. Watching the nurses scrape the newly small people off their large gurneys like cookies is just as important a scene as the most emotional beats. Payne, for me, has never been a visual filmmaker (he’s more in service of the words and performances, which is great) but with Downsizing he gets to use the size differences in really interesting ways. I was really impressed at how he carried me through the story via his assured hand behind the camera.
Matt Damon provides the movie it’s everyman cipher but Downsizing really belongs to the supporting duo of Hong Chau and Christoph Waltz, who give the film its well meaning and ridiculous heart. Waltz uses much of his weird charm to make his rich wild neighbor character leap off the screen, but he never does it in a way that makes the character antagonistic. That’s a tough line to walk, and Waltz does it beautifully. Chau has the toughest role of all. What’s great about her role is that the laughs derived from her character are not because of her language barrier (until near the end of the movie in a crazy funny scene). She’s like a bull in the carefully constructed china shop that is our main character’s life and Chau creates a real lived in person to go alongside the theatrics.
The reason the movie works however, might be because it’s willing to tackle the darker side of technology and society. When Paul Safranek goes small, he goes on a journey of self discovery and we as an audience realize that tiny society is plagued by many of the issues normal size folks deal. Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) was turned small against her will in a Vietnamese prison and through her we get an even more understandable worldview. Downsizing ends in a relatively slight manner but I applaud the film for bringing up interesting topics.