Directed By: Alexander Payne
Written By: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
*Warning: LOTS of Spoilers ahead.*
*Warning 2: This sort of turned into a long rant, so I apologize.*
If you can’t stop thinking about a movie, does that mean it was bad or good?
That’s how I feel right now about Downsizing.
There’s so much to say about this film that I’m going to attempt it in one post. Most of what I’m going to talk about will be (sometimes highly) critical and spoiler-filled, so if you don’t wish to have the movie ruined for you, this is not that review.
For the third time, I repeat: LOTS. OF. SPOILERS. AHEAD.
Okay, everybody good to go? Good.
What’s Downsizing Even About?
In the fictional world of this film, the process of downsizing has been developed as an attempt to control rampant overpopulation and pollution. Downsizing becomes the latest trend and is billed as a utopic, idyllic world where nobody suffers, and everyone is wealthy. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to downsize due to their economic issues and desire to lead a better life.
However, Audrey backs out at the last minute–leaving Paul downsized, with no chance of reversal.
After his divorce from Audrey, Paul is forced to give up the leisure life he bought into and settles for telemarketing and a tiny apartment. After one wild night with neighbor Dusan (the incredible, wonderful, always brilliant and funny Christoph Waltz), Paul collides with someone who alters his path forever–Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).
Tran, a Vietnamese political activist, jailed and downsized against her will, has made a life for herself in Leisureland cleaning houses and scraping by. She lives on the outskirts of the Leisureland in shoddy tenements and helps the sick and needy in her community when she can. After Paul accidentally breaks her prosthetic leg (trying to help her fix it), he becomes obligated to help her.
Through some twists and turns, Paul, Tran, and Dusan find themselves in Norway–the location of the first downsized colony. There, they learn that human impact on the environment is now irreversible. Human extinction is now a matter of not if, but when.
Paul is finally forced to make a difficult decision–whether to join the Norwegian colony in their bunker and help save what remains of humanity, or return back to Leisureland with the others and live out the rest of his days.
A Balancing Act of Themes
As you can see, there’s a lot of heavy s*** happening in Downsizing. All of it can make your head spin. Thankfully, the film does a really great job at balancing all these themes. However, while the themes may be balanced, many of them still lack the full fleshing-out they require.
In particular, I found myself very frustrated at the environmental/extinction themes that played throughout this movie. They are a catalyst for so much of what happens in the film, but even the biggest twist of this theme in the movie lands awkwardly.
When Paul, Tran, and Dusan reach Norway, they are greeted by Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), the inventor of the downsizing process. He informs them, in that meeting, of the gravity of the impending human extinction. At first, this moment hits really hard, but then you stop after a moment and say: “wait, has this impending danger been here the whole time?”
They try to explain it using a throwaway bit of exposition earlier in the film (something about methane in Alaska), but because it’s such a throwaway, it’s so easy to have missed. If I’d so much as looked away or sneezed, I wouldn’t have caught it.
This is such a pivotal moment–especially because it powers the entire third act–that to be so careless just makes the whole thing feel glib. If this environmental theme was so important, they should have taken the time to do more exposition with it, or tie it in just a little bit better. It doesn’t get the full context it needs.
This pattern happens over and over again, and it’s frustrating. Why would you pick such prescient, deep, thought-provoking themes and not bother to see them all the way through? It may be a side effect of the time limit of a film (this one runs 135 minutes, which is long for a film today) so I partially get it. But Downsizing could have done with narrowing its thematic focus.
Is this Racist or Am I Overthinking It?
As a general, positive statement, I will say that I fully enjoyed all the characters in this film. They felt real, had heart, were funny and sad just like all humans are, and pushed the story forward. But there are more problems than there are positives.
I have lots of complaints about how the filmmakers handled Chou’s character, Tran. She’s Vietnamese in the film and has only recently been living in Leisureland (America), so her accent is still heavy. Despite that, she’s still easy to understand and is a very lovable, endearing character, but I kept getting the sense that her foreignness was meant to be a source of comic relief.
I could be reading into this, as I am wont to do. But there were particular moments–like Paul explaining to Tran how a number of different medicines worked–that felt they were meant to lampoon her character. At one point early on, Tran basically kills a terminally ill woman with an opiate overdose. The way this information is presented feels set up to get a laugh–like it’s meant to be funny she didn’t understand what the medication did.
I personally don’t buy that set-up. I’m confident Tran knew what the medications would help end the sick woman’s suffering, which is consistent with who Tran is. But it just plays like we’re supposed to laugh at some perceived naivete (such a typical White Person™ thing to do). Again, I could be reading into it, but the fact that these sorts of moments repeat throughout the film make me suspicious.
What’s With This Character Arc?
Then there’s Damon’s character, Paul. I’ve got so many gripes about Paul that they’d probably be a whole separate article. I’ll go with the main point I am hung up on still: his character arc.
Basically, he falls in love with Tran (why? Why can’t we just have films where the hetero main characters don’t hook up?) towards the end of the film. Then he decides he needs to go into the Norwegians’ bunker as some sort of duty to humanity. At the absolute last minute, he changes his mind and turns around for Tran.
Like, come on, how damn unoriginal is that?
This is a total non-payoff of Paul’s character arc. In the beginning of the movie, we see him first helping his dying mother, and then helping his wife Audrey deal with her problems. All the while, he’s helping the people he works with make sure they keep their health in shape.
Then, when Paul finally does something for himself, it backfires. And he winds up back where he started–helping others. He helps a telemarketing coworker with back issues. He tries to help Tran fix her leg and walking issues. When that doesn’t work, he helps her do her cleaning work and taking care of her neighbors. He helps her bring food and medicine and supplies to those in need.
Do you see a theme here?
Now, when the climax of the film occurs, Paul decides to do something for himself (despite thinking he’s doing it for “all of humanity”…) by going into the bunker. Faced with the finality of his decision, he decides that he’s going to stay — not so he can continue helping people, but because he realizes he loves Tran more than his decision.
Granted, you can argue this is a beautiful sentiment to resolve Paul’s arc on, but for me, it falls flat. It just doesn’t pay out at all. And, it’s entirely possible for him to turn around for both Tran and the other people he knows he can help, but that isn’t explored at all.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Unrealized
Paul, at the end of the film, has two choices; he can either continue into the Norwegians’ bunker and attempt to escape humanity’s fate for as long as possible, or remain and do the best he can to help others in the time he has left. He sees meaning in joining the Norwegians, and none in remaining.
This is a classic existential set-up. To put it in context: Paul is good at helping people. It’s what he does best. Why should he continue to help others if humanity is going extinct anyway? That idea, on the outside, seems like a supreme waste of time. Only invest yourself into what has meaning, hence why he chooses the bunker. However, the real issue Paul needs to overcome is how he conceptualizes meaning.
It’s entirely possible for Paul to remain in Leisureland and do things that have meaning to him. Yes, the world may be ending, but that doesn’t mean that all meaning has to end as well. Despite inevitable extinction, he still has the opportunity to impact the lives of other people and bring himself meaning and happiness.
This is such a great philosophical opportunity for this story, and it would have felt so great to see it consciously realized by Damon’s character. Instead, the story relies on archaic romantic plot hooks to wrap itself up. And it just makes me so angry.
I’m conflicted about my final verdict on Downsizing. The film is well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing. As well the story is compelling. However, there’s so much I take issue with that it’s hard for me to adamantly recommend it. So, I suppose I’ll give it a Wait and See. But if my review has intrigued you and you want to explore it for yourself, I do recommend it. At the very least, it’ll provoke some deep thought–something missing in much of our modern cinema landscape. (Honestly, if you can’t find any other excuse to go see this movie, do it just to see Christoph Waltz. The man is great in this movie.)