Downsizing (2016) Film Review from the 74th Annual Venice International Film Festival, a movie directed by Alexander Payne, starring Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, and Christoph Waltz. The threat of global warming is treated glibly while Paul Safranek (Damon) discovers his true worth in this expiring world by becoming small.
We meet the Safranek (pronounced suh-frah-nic) couple as they choose to become the size of a candy bar in order to save money (and incidentally save the planet). The idea of downsizing actually blossomed from a scientist’s urge to do something drastic to save the planet from global warming. The story is more about Paul searching for purpose and trying to rebuild his self-worth. Along his journey, he meets interesting people like the worldly, entrepreneur Dusan (Waltz) and humanitarian Ngoc Lan (Chau), and they change his outlook on life in spite of the specter of world’s end.
Downsizing treats noble, but disturbingly drastic efforts to save the planet like inconsequential fads cooked up by crazy people. Who are we to think so much of ourselves that shrinking our impact as humans might make any difference to the world? But finding purpose while you are here on earth, maybe that is the real pursuit. We follow Paul’s journey as he learns to laugh, love, and be a useful human being in a small world.
Damon and Waltz as Paul and Dusan (pronounced doo-shon) are not exactly the odd couple although they try to be. Dusan inspires Paul. He is drawn to Dusan probably out of curiosity more than anything else. In fact, Paul does almost everything out of curiosity after very little nudging. He is sort of a leaf in the wind that hopes to belong to every tree he sees. Paul is aimless until some outside force propels him to do something interesting, useful or fun.
Paul meets Dusan and Ngoc Lan (Chau) and he changes. He grows in spirit, if not in size, because he engages with people that are so unlike him. Chau delivers an amazing performance as Ngoc Lan (pronounced…well, this one is easy, you got this). Ngoc Lan is a juggernaut with the authority of a general. Paul wishes he had a modicum of the character Ngoc Lan and Dusan possess. It is his friendship with Ngoc Lan that really wakes him up to his own possibilities as a contributing member of society – big or small. That’s nice, but it is also anticlimactic for a film with such big concepts.
Downsizing is not revolutionary. It could have been. It is the physical equivalent of humbling oneself to nature. Taking literally the grassroots initiative of “shrinking our carbon footprints”, Downsizing depicts shrinking as an industry (and even punishment), which is incredibly provocative. Except, here, “downsizing” is presented more as a fun, exercise in futility.
Nothing changes in the small world. Class systems persist in the small world. Opulence and struggle still exist in the small world where people should need very little to live comfortably. Even in “Leisureland” utopia has a price.
Payne’s sci-fi-lite version of world-building also made Downsizing less impressive than it could have been. In the beginning, there are pieces that force you to enter into the reality of miniature people being among us in transit and at workplaces. The process of miniaturization is a visual feast. Then, the effort just kind of stops once the world becomes small. A few well-placed objects like giant bottles and pieces of paper remind us that our world has shrunk every once in a while. Otherwise, you cannot tell that you are in a tiny world. We can use our imagination, but it ends up feeling like we are in a regular-sized movie after all.
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