Alexander Payne has long been a master at creating men strangled by their own masculinity or perceived lack of it. Here, in Downsizing, he takes that concept to a bizarre logical conclusion – a man, Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), feels that he’s less of a man than he should be, to the point that he opts for a procedure where he quite literally becomes ‘less man’. This medical miracle is known colloquially in Paul’s near-future world as ‘downsizing’, the act of shrinking humans down to five centimetres in height, the end result of decades of work by the world’s top scientists to minimise mankind’s environmental impact.
Paul is lured to the concept by the stagnation of his normal-sized life. He still lives in his childhood home, and is stuck in the boring middle of the job ladder, working as an in-house physical therapist for a meat packing company. As someone who helps keep one of humanity’s most environmentally disastrous businesses running, Paul sees downsizing as a way to give back to the planet, as well as start fresh with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Tempted in by a sales pitch that informs them of the enormous financial benefits of the process, the Safraneks sign on.
Immediately, regret hangs in the air, and the increasingly apprehensive faces of the couple in a pre-operation interview provide Downsizing with its first moments of gut-lurching horror. As well as being a funny and fascinating look at a possible future, Payne’s vision is a deeply disconcerting one, often resembling a slightly more sanitised version of a Terry Gilliam dystopia. Indelible images flood the screen in the first act, from a tiny, hairless Damon screaming down the phone after Audrey backs out and remains ‘big’, to the unconscious bodies of the recently-shrunk being moved by spatula on to tiny gurneys.
Heavy themes pervade Downsizing, despite how funny it is, and the comedy/downbeat balance is perfectly tuned, with no tonal hiccups. From the loneliness of entering a new world without your spouse, to humanity’s blithe ignoring of impending catastrophe, to our seemingly unshakeable class system, this is not the knockabout comedy that its basic premise would suggest. After a chance encounter with a forcibly-downsized Vietnamese dissident (Hong Chau), Paul discovers how his perfect small life is supported – by migrant labourers living in horrible conditions outside of the safety-domed mini-city limits. Mankind’s unwillingness to change, even on the approach to apparent utopia, is made miserably apparent.
After the exceptional first half, Downsizing loses a bit of steam, Payne and Jim Taylor’s script meandering into a range of plot threads that, while all entertaining in their own right, take a little too long to coalesce. But the ending is more than worth the cameo-packed wait, hilarious and bittersweet, and along the way there’s some inspired direction. Superb design and camera work puts us in Paul’s shoes, and his first few small days, are just the right side of uncomfortable, with nothing exactly as you feel it should be. As Paul gets used to his situation (over a year-long period covered by one of many fast-forward title cards), we too breathe easier, but maintain a sense of wonder from this new perspective.
Damon does reliably solid work, elevated whenever he shares a scene with Chau, the pair sharing a snappy chemistry, while Wiig is excellent in a surprisingly small role. Christoph Waltz gets the most opportunity to cut loose, as Paul’s boorish, party-loving neighbour, and just as this performance threatens to become annoying, layers of genuine care are added. It’s a very smart piece of writing, matched by Waltz, whose manic grin gets a lot of nicely varied appearances.
A move into sci-fi is, on paper, a bold new genre for Payne and, a few shonky effects aside, he adapts to this world with aplomb. But, in Paul, he has a classic hero archetype of his, allowing him to play to his strengths and create a fully drawn character, a good man flawed by his hesitancy and a stoop-shouldered patheticness that is affecting without being overbearing. Downsizing is a bizarre, idiosyncratic adventure, but one that you’ll want to take all the way to an excellent finish.