The procedure is unveiled in Istanbul, at a lecture concerning “Human Scale and Sustainability,” presented as the only “reasonable solution” for overpopulation and overconsumption. It’s called cellular reduction, and simply put, it shrinks you — to roughly .0364% of your current size, where you’ll take up a fraction of the space for a fraction of your living cost, and create a fraction of your current environmental footprint. I can’t speak to the scientific accuracy of the cellular reduction process, but as it’s presented in Alexander Payne’s new film Downsizing, it’s at least convincing, and that’s all that matters. (The vernacular shorthand for the process is “get small,” a touch that Steve Martin fans will appreciate.)
This is a pretty high concept for a filmmaker usually preoccupied with the lives and struggles of the ordinary, but Payne and his regular co-writer Jim Taylor think this thing through, working out all its complications and ramifications - and the logistics of such a procedure once it becomes your typical, streamlined medical process (dental work, hair removal, and, um, “irrigation”). The thrust of the story takes place ten years after that Istanbul lecture, and the filmmakers convincingly imagine how “getting small” would work its way into daily life, becoming not only normalized, but corporatized. When Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) visit “LeisureLand,” a mini-city for shrunken people, all they see is snazzy presentations and amenities. They’ll live, for all intents and purposes, in dollhouses - but they’re sold as the last chance to grasp at a lost suburban American Dream. And it’s already become a world filled with the same shitty chain restaurants and McMansions they’re ostensibly escaping.
That’s not all Paul’s trying to fix; he’s got a mild case of midlife dissatisfaction, and much to his disappointment (and thanks to no small confluence of outside events), the cellular reduction only exacerbates it. But he turns it around, somewhat, via a convoluted chain of events that starts with his rowdy upstairs neighbor (Christoph Waltz, sporting a cat-that-ate-the-canary grin and an outrageous accent) and ends at the “original colony” in Norway.
Any more than that is best discovered yourself. Downsizing is a refreshing left-turn in the Payne filmography, starting in familiar territory (his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, with Damon in the Omaha middle-aged man uniform of untucked button-up shirt and khaki shorts) and with brief appearances by alums (including Election and About Schmidt’s Phil Reeves and Paris je t’aime’s Margo Martindale). But he couples the fanciful premise with his most overt social commentary since debut film Citizen Ruth; a tipsy guy at Paul and Audrey’s goin- away party asks, “Do you think you should still have the same rights as us normal people,” and even in this rebooted civilization, the menial jobs are still filled by minorities, who are shuttled back to their slums at the end of the work day.
So Payne’s created a mixture of mid-life crisis comedy, sci-fi parable, and class commentary, with a last-minute helping of eco-drama to boot. This, as you might imagine, makes for a peculiar mishmash of tones, and much of Downsizing is spent walking a fine line between oddness and earnestness. The success of the execution is questionable; there are entire scenes and subplots that don’t land at all. But there’s no denying or dismissing the picture’s ambition, and it’s honestly a little shocking that a major studio is releasing it in this form, since it’s chock full of red flags for notes and interference.
By the picture’s conclusion, it’s hard to guess exactly what Payne is going for, and he ends up grasping at emotions that are, sad to say, just out of reach. But I was consistently engaged by Downsizing, and appreciate its subversions of norms and expectations. Towards its end, Damon does one of those “If somebody would have told me ten years ago…” speeches, which makes for a funny, momentary reminder of just how weird this movie’s become. But there’s another frame around that moment; if somebody would have told me ten years ago that Alexander Payne would make this movie today, I wouldn’t have believed them. And that counts for something.