Downsizing is one of my favorite films this year. I am an unabashed admirer of Alexander Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor, because they deal in a commodity that’s all too rare: social satire. They have taken a bold risk this time around by launching their fanciful story in comedic mode and then turning serious. Not everyone is willing to make that transition, but I did…and I loved taking the journey.
Matt Damon proves again that he is an ideal everyman. Here he plays an occupational therapist who can’t seem to get ahead financially. His wife (Kristen Wiig) longs for a nicer house and he wants to please her. The answer lies in a program that’s gaining momentum: downsizing. The result of revolutionary research in Norway intended to solves the world’s overpopulation crisis, it enables scientists to shrink people to five inches in height. Newly designed miniature communities offer ordinary folks the chance to enjoy a lavish lifestyle because their money goes so far in a Lilliputian world.
An orientation at Leisure World is hosted by Neil Patrick Harris, who shows off the mansion he lives in with his wife (Laura Dern), who is luxuriating in a bubble bath and confesses that she just bought a set of diamond earrings, necklace and bracelet for just $83. It seems too good to be true. What could possibly go wrong?
This is where I have to hold back lest I spoil the many twists Payne and Taylor present. Suffice it to say that Damon becomes involved with a Vietnamese immigrant, played to perfection by newcomer Hong Chau, who shatters the shiny façade of Leisure World and devotes herself to helping people in need. She recruits Damon to assist her and before he knows it, he’s pitching in. He also falls under the sway of a hedonistic, globe-trotting neighbor (Christoph Waltz) and his deadpan pal, a yachtsman played by Udo Kier.
Downsizing isn’t a “message movie,” but it does have a lot to say about modern life, from the hypocrisy of corporate hustle to the dilemma of a (literally) shrinking middle class. It offers food for thought as well as ingenuity, visual surprises, solid laughs, and a story that goes in unexpected directions.
Rolfe Kent has scored most of Payne’s movies but this is one of his finest achievements. The crucial segment in which Damon and scores of others undergo the clinical process of downsizing—a fascinating, virtually wordless episode—is accompanied by a perfectly conceived eight-minute composition.
As I round out the moviegoing year and assess the awards being handed out I despair that Downsizing hasn’t gotten the plaudits it deserves. I haven’t seen that many films with staying power; this one has lingered in my mind since I saw it several months ago at Telluride, and I found a second viewing just as rewarding as the first. Satire is always a tough sell, but I hope moviegoers will embrace this highly original film. They will witness the emergence of a great talent in Hong Chau and be rewarded for joining Matt Damon on a unique physical and emotional odyssey.