Alexander Payne, working with regular scribe Jim Taylor, crafts warm and spiky movies about characters who are all too acutely aware of their economic lot in life. From ‘Sideways,’ which spotlights a failed writer turned English teacher, to ‘Nebraska,’(Payne’s home state) where a combination of encroaching senility and a lifetime of financial difficulties is enough to get an old man hopping across state lines in order to collect on a dodgy million dollar sweepstakes.
These are movies about ‘little people’ (you will see why that isn’t funny later) who are forced to come to terms with the results of a lifetime, or half a lifetime, of compromise and disappointment.
In this regard, ‘Downsizing’ is not so different. At its centre is Paul Safranek, (Matt Damon) an affable fellow who is all too familiar with money troubles, having dropped out of medical school in order to care for his ailing mother. We later see him working as an occupational therapist, living with his equally cash strapped spouse Audrey. (Kristen Wiig) Like a lot of Payne’s characters, they are part of that lower middle class who, since the recession, have been pushed further and further down the economic ladder. Like so many others, Safranek wants to climb his way back up.
His answer takes the form of new terrain for Payne, a broadening of his canvas as we find ourselves in a world where Scandi scientists have invented a new way to counter the devastating effects of overpopulation: the titular procedure which involves shrinking the human form until it is roughly five inches tall.
Like all new technologies, capitalism finds a way to exploit it, leading to the construction of Leisureland, a tiny domed city which offers Safranek a second chance at the American Dream. Downsizing and relocating to this gated community allows one to avail of a favourful exchange rate, where a modest income translates into millions of dollars once one is small. Payne playfully constructs this big vs small world, where every bus and plane has tiny, hamster-cage-like compartments where there are gags a plenty, including a sequence where Matt Damon is shaved, then shrunk, then flipped like a burger.
The fun continues once the film progresses into Leisureland and Damon finds himself the neighbour to two aging Eurotrash playboys, played by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, which may be the best and the funniest piece of casting in the last year of cinema. The entrance of these two characters includes a party scene which climaxes with a shot of Udo Kier dancing in an ecstasy induced psychedelic haze, and this heralds a turn in the film, an expansion of its treatment of income inequality from Middle America to the international.
Safranak meets Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese activist who was shrunk by her despotic government and sent to America in a TV box, a traumatic journey that cost her a sister and her leg. She gets by on a faulty prosthetic and the frugal salary she earns as a maid. She is played by Hong Chau, who is the film’s standout performer. Chau gives a warm, comedic and compassionate performance which is always on the move, always focused on the bottom line, a necessary skill for anyone eking out a hardscrabble existence.
Some critics have taken issue with the character, particularly with the way she speaks, which is in a stop-start stream of broken English. Although her cadence is occasionally utilised for humorous purposes, she is never mocked, either for her speech, her unwavering altruism or her devout Christianity. Chau and Payne go to great lengths to avoid caricature and to make her a fully rounded human being, with the former basing her performance off her parents, who were first generation Vietnamese immigrants, and the latter ensuring that the character’s wants and needs become a major driving force of the narrative and the plot’s ballooning thematic concerns. By the second act this includes dealing with a world just like our own, where the wealth of the few rages unabated and the majority, of mostly non-European origin, are left to suffer in the margins.
If the film falters, it does so in its last act, when it leaves Leisureland and the United States to reckon with impending ecological destruction in Norway. It’s a sojourn that offers some beautiful tableaux and an interesting idea or two, but this comes at the cost of the film’s exciting play with scale and the more fruitful explorations of class and racial politics. It would be acceptable if what came in to take those two thematic titans’ places was as well executed but unfortunately, the final act feels a tad inert in comparison. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t take away from the film’s many pleasures, its robust empathy and a murderers’ row of quite wonderful performances, with Hong at the forefront. By its conclusion its reach may have exceeded its grasp but in this decade it is exceedingly rare to find a more than modestly sized American movie that has any reach or grasp at all.
Director: Alexander Payne,
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Udo Kier.