Film: That shrinking feeling

Written By: Patrick Mulcahy
Published: January 27, 2018 Last modified: January 27, 2018


Director: Alexander Payne


Downsizing is so many films packed into its 135-minute running time that I almost don’t know where to begin. It is an ecological fable in which the answer to reducing humankind’s environmental footprint is to reduce a person’s size. It is a drama about a working stiff (Matt Damon, reprising his abandoned man routine from The Martian) stuck irreversibly in a world in which he has no purpose. It is a critique of utopia – now how matter you design a world, there will always be a sub-culture of have-nots watching tele-novellas on a huge communal screen. It is a film about the crushing of activism – if you want to kill a movement for change, make it small.

Director Alexander Payne’s first foray into science fiction is really about the beautiful futility of liberalism. No matter how heartfelt the cause, no matter how “high concept” the mitigation, you will lose. All you have left is quality time with those you’ve grown to love.

Damon’s Paul Safranek is an occupational therapist working for Omaha Steaks who as a young man called a halt on his medical studies to take care of his sick mother (Jayne Houdyshell). Ten years later he is living in the same house with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) who is yearning for a better life. They run into an old college buddy (Jason Sudeikis) who has, for the good of the planet, taken the decision to go small, to reduce his non-compostable waste and turn a modest sum into a miniaturised but sumptuous life. There is, however, a one-in-two hundred thousand chance that the miniaturisation process will kill you, we are informed in one of the film’s deadpan moments of humour.

Paul undergoes the procedure only to discover that his wife loves being normal-sized too much. Although he moves into a luxury home, the divorce settlement means that he has to re-locate to an apartment block in which the parties thrown by his gregarious Serbian neighbour (Christoph Waltz) quash any attempt at a quiet life.

Having set up this elaborate premise, Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor lose interest in it pretty fast. It is a metaphor to an end, designed to illustrate how even when people make life-changing decisions they are weighed down by the cloak of defeat. Paul’s redemption comes when after passing out at a party he meets famous Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) who is working as a cleaner. He notices immediately that her prosthetic leg is ill-fitted and aims to put it right.

You can see why a major Hollywood studio bought into Payne’s concept with Damon on board – The Martian’s worldwide gross of $629 million is not to be sniffed at. But this is not feel-good cinema in which science and determination combine. Instead, it is literally overcome with Nordic gloom.

The revelation of the film is Hong Chau, best known for playing Jackie in the TV series Big Little Lies. Her characterisation of Ngoc Lan as a forthright, unselfish and unsentimental helper in a community that the miniaturised Leisureland residents don’t know exists – never thinking where their cleaners come from – drags Paul out of his numb existence and the audience out of its rut. She is absolutely committed to those who can’t save themselves but it is a tribute to Chau that Ngoc Lan is someone we care about rather than a caricature.

Downsizing is a brave but ultimately foolish film that imagines that its audience is as concerned about the environment as the filmmakers appear to be. It was planned for Hillary Clinton’s America rather than Trump-town, with no religious undertones. Crocodiles have survived longer than humans, we are told at one point; meanwhile the audience is moved to judge the whole film as a crock.

About Patrick Mulcahy

Patrick Mulcahy is a film critic for Tribune and Chartist, to which he has contributed for over twenty years.