Cast: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau and Kristen Wiig
Director: Alexander Payne
So the one crumpled rosebud in the otherwise perfect cinematic universe created by director Alexander Payne in Downsizing is its leading man, Matt Damon. According to calculations, an excess of 900 billion fictional dollars has been spent on rescuing Damon from various times and places in space. And while in this movie it costs a trifling 15000 dollars to reduce him to five inches in height, as the end credits come on, one can’t help feeling that it’s more money down the drain. Like really, this guy?
But as stated, this is the only blemish of Downsizing, a sci-fi satire that deals with the intriguing ‘what-if’ of shrinking people down to five inches in order to tackle environmental issues, over population and waste. After the process is discovered/invented by Norwegian scientist Jørgen Asbjørnsen, it is quickly co-opted around the world, with private companies offering people the opportunity to sell all their assets, undergo the process and retire to an idyllic life in built-to-scale luxury communities with almost every possible amenity and luxury provided. Because of their scaled-down requirements of space, sustenance and other resources, a relatively modest sum of money in the regular-sized world translates into a life of leisure and luxury for the ‘Downsized’.
This ‘Downsizing’, despite its obvious advantages for the environment, is only taken up by about 3% of the population over the nearly-20 years the film takes place, and Payne is also quick to point out its many disadvantages. Because of the specialized needs of the downsized, regular-sized housing markets, consumer goods and other industries suffer, along with a dearth in tax collections due to lesser people generating income. Countries have a new fear of tiny illegal immigrants passing unchecked through their borders while totalitarian regimes use the irreversible process to punish dissidents and more effectively imprison them.
This is the world in which we’re introduced to Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an occupational therapist who helps treat work-related injuries, and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). In order to be rescued – sounds familiar – from a life of financial obscurity and to provide his wife with a better standard of living, Paul decides to sell all his assets and convert that sum of 1,25,000 dollars into a downsized lifestyle worth 12.5 million at Leisure Land, a high-end ‘small-living’ community complete with his own McMansion and a lifetime’s worth of leisure activities.
While things don’t go exactly to plan, Paul eventually does get downsized and embarks on his new life, which includes meeting and forming a burgeoning friendship with his party-loving European neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) as well as Vietnamese émigré and amputee Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) who cleans Dusan’s luxurious house and lives in a ghetto situated far away from Leisure Land’s entitled environs. Because of course there’s income inequality in the 'Downsize' as well.
And it is with elements like these that Payne (who also co-wrote the film) shows his mastery at telling a visual tale. What could simply have been a fascinating sci-fi story/film becomes a social commentary on class and wage divides, race relations, the effects of the Anthropocene (a proposed epoch dated from the onset of significant and observable human impact on the Earth's geology and environments) as well as the very future of humanity itself. In the midst of stunning visuals, the film’s characters don’t speak lines so much as have deep, sometimes rambling, conversations on morality, society, technology and man’s remorseless consumption of everything around him. And whenever it verges on becoming preachy, something jaw-dropping or hilarious or gorgeous or just plain weird happens to shake up the film’s momentum.
The casting is impeccable. Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris and Wiig perform their fleeting roles with aplomb, while Waltz is as arresting as ever; his amoral, hedonistic portrayal of an aging Serbian sybarite and occasional bootlegger takes the audience (via Paul) into the unregulated underbelly of Downsizing, a “Wild West” of parties, drugs, sex and potential business opportunities of transporting and selling contraband with a world view that is both cynical and charming. Dusan admits he’s a “bit of an ***hole” while cheerfully pointing out that the world needs ***holes to get rid of its shit.
But the true stand out is Chau, whose Ngoc Lan Tran, the Vietnamese dissident who is empowered, driven, decisive, impatient to the point of being curt and is caring to a fault. Despite losing her village, her home, her family, her friends and a leg and despite being imprisoned, tortured and shrunken against her will by her own government before fleeing to America as a political refugee (“all so she could come and clean my toilet, you have to love this country” cackles Dusan at one point, not unkindly) and finding only a menial job and a shanty home in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Tran isn’t so much of a pillar of her impoverished community as she is its backbone. She cares for and feeds the old, sick and or dying, scrounges for any medicines that might help them and spends every waking moment in service to others while expecting not a thing in return. Chau doesn’t play Tran, she IS Tran from her stumbling but determined walk to her pidgin English to her indefatigable concern for others to the way she keeps calling Paul a “stupid, stupid man”. And while her character history -- and her Samaritanism despite it -- is heart-wrenching, Chau manages to infuse no small amount of humor in the way a handicapped but feisty immigrant woman efficiently deals with the vagaries of the self-indulgent, entitled Americans who surround her. Tran isn’t just a character, she’s an emotional workout: from inspiring you with her actions to bringing a lump to your throat with her pithy observations and memories to eliciting chuckles at her friendly contempt for “crazy, stupid” and mostly white men.
And that brings us to Matt Damon. It isn’t that Damon is a bad actor, it’s just that his usual act of ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances is never very likeable. It’s just really hard to get yourself to invest in him or care about him, which is kind of important for a lead character one would think. Presumably Payne wanted an everyman to play the main role to make it easier for the audience to fill his shoes and inhabit this remarkable world themselves. And sure, apart from when he’s playing an amnesiac spy or astronaut with issues, Damon has made himself a Hollywood A-lister on the strength of his everyman-ness, but really. This guy?