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Tiny houses would dwarf the people who “go small” in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. Unlike the real-world definitions of the term, “downsizing” in this satire doesn’t refer to forced unemployment or divesting yourself of your possessions if they don’t bring you joy. It means shrinking yourself to 5 inches (give or take) and moving to a similarly scaled community, ostensibly to drastically reduce your carbon footprint but also to live the glamorous life.
Why the dollar is so strong in the small world—as in thousands become millions—is a mystery, but the appeal is undeniable: Live in a mansion, have more leisure time, and buy luxury items as casually as if they were bread and milk all while helping to save the Earth. So occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to make the transformation after realizing that they can’t afford a home of their own.
Well, at least one of them does. The couple travel to the medical center together and are separated into the men’s and women’s wings, where their heads and body hair are shaved. When Paul wakes up after the procedure, he’s anxious to talk to his wife—an anticipation that’s, um, short-lived. Audrey eventually calls, but she’s at the airport. With a bald head and one eyebrow, she confesses that she couldn’t go through with it. Paul flips out but then proceeds to build his new small, single life.
Payne co-wroteDownsizing with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor. And though the film is engaging enough, exactly what message the director was trying to get across is unclear. The strongest themes are climate change and the imminent extinction of humankind, along with the irony that the small world is full of excess. But sandwiched in between is Paul’s newfound, albeit drug-fueled, ability to let himself go (this is only a thin slice of the pie) along with his friendship with Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese cleaning lady and onetime dissident he first begins talking to when he notices her limping badly on a prosthetic leg. The headstrong Ngoc Lan persuades Paul to pretend he’s a doctor for a cancer-stricken friend and then has him help her collect and distribute food to the residents of her tenement.
Damon is in nearly every scene and ably carries the movie as the square Paul. (When a woman offers him a pill at a party, he asks her what it is. “I need to know,” he says. “I have allergies.”) Chau has been receiving accolades for her portrayal of Ngoc Lan, even if that portrayal is initially a caricature. Christoph Waltz also co-stars as Paul’s neighbor, hedonistic with a baffling accent.
Downsizing’s final scenes suggest that the shrunken world cannot escape the problems of the regular one. So is the gist of the film that people are people? That no matter how significantly we innovate, we’ll fuck things up? Payne doesn’t go deeply enough to support these conclusions, and his ruminations on climate change hit a dead end. The film’s characters may be the ones who are literally downsized, but it’s the script that seems to have gotten a pink slip.
Downsizing opens Friday at Landmark Atlantic Plumbing Cinema and the Angelika Pop-Up.