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Review: Downsizing

December 22, 2017

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

Seeking to solve problems of overpopulation and the rapid consumption and depletion of natural resources, a team of Norwegian scientists have discovered a process that allows people to shrink themselves down to the size of action figures, to reduce their carbon footprint.

This is the basic premise behind Downsizing, which follows Paul Safraneck (Matt Damon), a working class man from Omaha who decides to undergo the procedure, allowing him to live a grand life at a fraction of the cost in one of the swanky small communities.  But at the same time, Paul discovers a whole host of problems in his new life, many of them mirroring the old ones.

The trouble with “downsizing” is that it’s an attempt to solve the environmental crisis through a solution that is inherently unnatural, and Paul quickly realizes that the small communities have basically become microcosms of the world as it is now, with the same deep-rooted social problems of classism and poverty, just on a physically much smaller scale.

The latest from director Alexander Payne, who has a knack for crafting nuanced character studies and also co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, Downsizing is a high concept satirical comedy that represents somewhat of a change for him with its science fiction overtones.  While it does share some common DNA with his previous works, at its heart being about another average “schnook from Omaha,” this is also the first time he has meddled in fantasy waters following more grounded dramatic comedies like Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways and About Schmidt.

This is the sort of ambitious film that aims for the stars and doesn’t always land, and the sometimes wonky tone doesn’t quite nail the balance between comedy, fantasy, character study and drama.  But Downsizing is also a creatively risky work from a filmmaker who is trying something new, and it’s easily enjoyable as such.  The film tackles some interesting themes of where the world is headed both on an environmental and social scale, and how every seismic change in society brings about a whole new host of problems and inequalities, many of which are rooted entirely on preexisting determinations of class, race and financial status.

Matt Damon carries the film with an easily appealing everyman performance.  Although he’s not exactly pushing himself here as an actor, it’s the sort of role that he plays extremely well, and he is backed up by an all-star ensemble.  The cast is rounded out by fun work from Kristen Wiig as Paul’s wife, an amusing turn by Christoph Waltz as a slick playboy who has figured out how to turn a profit in this tiny world, as well as standout supporting work from Hong Chau, who hilariously steals every scene as a Vietnamese refugee and also provides much of the film’s heart.  If you see the film for one reason, see it for her.

Reactions to Downsizing are sure to vary wildly, and it’s not as good as Alexander Payne’s previous films, but this is still a decent effort from a filmmaker with something to say.  If you are a fan of his work like I am, then I think you’ll at least enjoy this one as well, and it’s every bit worth seeing to decide where you stand for yourself.

A version of this review was originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival.

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