“You know how Hollywood doesn’t make original movies anymore?” asks Ann Hornaday in The Washington Post. “Well, Downsizing is here to fix that.”
The movie indeed presents as a highly original concept: an everyone-wins-the-lotto fantasia, a hypothetical near-future where every middle-class worker drone with fifty thousand in the bank can shrink themselves and relocate to a miniaturized consumerist paradise where everything is cheap and easy. And the shrunken crowds, with their shrunken environmental footprint, get to save the world in the process.
That’s what gets our attention, but what keeps it is a vividly accurate parable on class struggle and the inherent unfairness of global imbalances in rights and status. This turn happens when hero Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) – left behind by his wife (Kristen Wiig), discontented with his new world’s opulence – stumbles into a miniature tenement outside the walls of diminutive mansion-dotted Leisureland and discovers an underclass of refugees who have been downsized against their will.
Galvanized, Safranek sets off to find the meaning that financially amping up his lifestyle could not deliver. Cue the critics:
“Downsizing … is the rarest thing in today’s movie industry: a big movie for big people — adults, you could call them,” writes Jake Coyle in the The Associated Press.
He’s not the only one who was impressed. Here are some highlights:
Director Alexander Payne continues his record of excellence
“It’s hard to say what’s better about the first half of Alexander Payne’s wonderfully weird – or is it weirdly wonderful? – Downsizing: the audacity of its premise, or the delicious skill with which Payne executes that premise, detail by comically ingenious detail,” Jocelyn Noveck writes for The Associated Press.
Payne has directed six previous feature films, including Paramount’s Academy Award-nominated Election and Nebraska, as well as the Academy Award-winning Sideways and The Descendants (both won for Best Adapted Screenplay).
“Alexander Payne is one of those rare filmmakers who’s never made a bad movie, and he’s not about to start now,” writes Micah Mertes in the Omaha World-Herald. “…in its sense of place, in its existential dread, in its deadpan comedy and late-inning optimism, Downsizing is an on-brand continuation of a career still running strong more than two decades in.”
Supporting actress Hong Chau is remarkable
Chau, who plays a Vietnamese refugee shrunken against her will and forced to labor as a Leisureland maid after losing a leg to gangrene, delivers a Golden Globe-nominated performance as a supporting actress.
“Hong Chau, best known from Inherent Vice and HBO’s Treme, achieves nothing less than an acting triumph,” writes Peter Travers in Rolling Stone. “Her Best Supporting Actress nominations from the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild are just the start of the honors coming her way.”
One thing that drew Chau to the role was a high-concept framework that acted as an approachable vector for important issues.
“Stories that weave together topics and ideas that I care about in a creative and fresh way do not come along very often,” she told MUSE. “It is because it’s so difficult to talk about issues that are important in a way that people wanna hear it and wanna listen to it. So part of that is accomplished through humor, through a little bit of levity, because when you say that the movie is about immigration or climate change, well people feel like they know what that story’s gonna be, and they’re not really interested in hearing it. So you have to give it a different outline, a different frame.”
Listen to the full interview here:
Video by MUSE founder and executive producer Michael Sandoval. Used with permission.
A glorious dystopia
Unlike the post-apocalyptic or post-human cinema hellscapes dominated by toxic waste or robots, Downsizing delivers a more subtle dystopian vision of collective human future: one that looks like paradise.
“At the movies, we’ve encountered dozens of dystopian visions in recent years, but few are as cheerfully, chillingly banal as the one depicted in Downsizing,” writes Tim Grierson in Paste. “It’s frightening because it’s so corporately constructed—and then it’s even more frightening because the people who have signed up consider it paradise.”
Payne has been working on the concept for over a decade, according to the Toronto Sun. Ultimately, the director sees the cracking of Safranek’s utopian bubble as an opportunity for the character to discover something of greater importance – life purpose.
“If you’re a thoughtful person you try to craft a life that might make you to be able to die without regret,” Payne told the paper’s Mark Daniell. “I think that’s going to be the worst feeling in life. If you have the occasion to know your death is coming imminently and you think about things that you did or didn’t do, that will be a drag.”
Downsizing is now in theaters.