Perspective key to well-meaning Downsizing from Alexander Payne.
As a kid, I absolutely loved my Matchbox cars. In my parents’ basement, I would make pretend highways and have grand adventures. In the late 1980’s/early 1990’s Galoob made a huge push on their Micro Machines line of miniaturized cars, playsets and other assorted vehicles. My perspective on the world changed in an instant when it became infinitely larger through miniaturization. In reality, my world got even bigger when I graduated from college and I had to ‘adult’; that’s a story for another time.
What, or how does this have anything remotely to do with Alexander Payne’s latest film, the fantastical Downsizing?
As our population increases, the beautiful blue spinning sphere that we call home becomes smaller. More resources are used, more waste generated. What would we as a species do, if we looked at the problem from a microscopic point of view? That’s the premise behind Mr. Payne’s story, co-written by Jim Taylor. In our story, the Norwegians have figured out a way to scientifically shrink humans to a height of 5 inches, which is unveiled at the beginning of the film.
15 years later, Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) encounter high school friends, Dave (Jason Sudeikis) and Carol, who have undergone the procedure. They both exude a happiness from having transformed their lives, enough that it convinces Paul and Audrey to make the jump. As we learn, the transition is not without its consequences, both for society as a whole, but more importantly for Paul and Audrey, a theme that parallels real-world socioeconomics.
Mr. Payne won this critic over with the first two acts of this film. Matt Damon gives such an exciting performance as he coaxes us through a change in our perspective, fundamentally altering who he is, and by extension, who we are and what our place is in the world, the implications are huge.
However, the consequences of our choices follow us.
And though I know this was Mr. Payne’s message, his film reaps what he sewed in a fumbled third act. Don’t get me wrong. Christoph Waltz’s Dusan and Hong Chau’s Lan Tran are absolutely essential to the bridge between the second and third acts, and they work their magic. However, the bridge between the two worlds isn’t strong enough to support the third act, turning utopia into dystopia.
The entire ensemble is exceptional, but Hong Chau is truly the film’s saving grace as she reminds us what it is to be humane and human in a world struggling to get by. She is, quite literally, our moral compass. And the accolades from the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards is well-earned.
From a technical perspective, Downsizing does miniature exceptionally well. The special effects from Industrial Light and Magic are some of the most amazing, and humorous I’ve seen yet this year. Celebrated cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, who has worked with Mr. Payne on Sideways and Nebraska uses perspective as his tool in order to create two separate worlds. They are distinctly different, and yet they are also very much the same.
Of his films that I’ve seen, Downsizing is Alexander Payne’s most radical work to date. I appreciated the fact that he stretched beyond his boundaries. Every artist needs to do so. However, even with a strong ensemble and a strong technical look to the film, Mr. Payne’s thought-provoking story doesn’t completely deliver on what it promises. Perhaps this was his point as well. I put away my Micro Machines, but I never stopped looking at them, thinking of the adventures that I’ve had and looking forward to the adventures yet to come.
Now in theaters, Downsizing is rated R by the MPAA.