Produced and distributed by Paramount Pictures
Directed by Alexander Payne
Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor
I’m late commenting on Alexander Payne’s Downsizing for the simple reason that the film became all but unavailable within what seemed a couple of weeks of its opening in December 2017. It had disappeared from theaters and had yet to be marketed in either DVD or online streaming formats. Recently, however, it became available on iTunes, so I got my chance to watch it. Payne has become a go-to director for me. In a time when few filmmakers work in satire, he’s assumed the mantle handed down by Preston Sturges. Naturally, I wanted to see his latest offering.
Downsizing, despite an intriguing premise and first-tier actors, didn’t find an enthusiastic welcome among American filmgoers. It did much better overseas. By not subscribing to the usual conventions of either science fiction or romantic films, Payne had risked confusing his audience, and this seems to be what happened. This is a shame. While the film may not be as successful as Payne’s other satires—Citizen Ruth and Election come especially to mind—it’s definitely worth watching for what it says about today’s smarmy America.
The film is a quietly sinister send-up of those not-unrelated middle-class preoccupations: material comfort and moral superiority. This is especially evident in upscale gated communities. Residents in such soulless places live lushly while making sure everyone knows they’re virtuously toeing the line laid down by our politically correct commissars. To gain entrance into this realm, you must hold the right notions regarding such matters as population growth, environmental hazards, enlightened progressivism, and, of course, multiculturalism. To dramatize this, Payne has created a vision of the near future founded on the first duty of a satirist, which is to remind us that we’re small. He does this with a bizarre premise: In the near future people will have the opportunity to have themselves profitably miniaturized.
In 1726, Jonathan Swift did this brilliantly in Gulliver’s Travels. He gave us six-inch-tall Lilliputians and towering 60-foot Brobdingnagians. The Lilliputians are a vain, petty, and endlessly disputatious lot who believe unswervingly that their kingdom is the world’s center and themselves the acme of God’s creation. The Brobdingnagians, for their part, take a wider, not to mention a loftier, view. They consider Gulliver, whose size is Lilliputian in their eyes, an impertinent, exasperating fool. They are particularly contemptuous of his aggravated sense of self-importance.
In Downsizing, Payne uses this perspectival strategy to analyze the fatuities of the American middle class. While he hasn’t Swift’s furious misanthropy, he nevertheless does an excellent job of puncturing the vanity of moderately well-heeled people who, despite their comforts, live in fear they might lose what they have if they don’t comply with the sumptuary laws of their community.
His narrative focuses on Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), a childless couple in their 40’s living in Omaha, the frequent location of Payne’s previous films. Their aspirations for the good life have hit a wall, and they’re looking for a way around their frustration. They’ve been living in the dingy house Paul grew up in and would very much like to move on to something better. Their $152,000 nest egg, however, won’t support the kind of new house they’re hoping for. Then at a college reunion they discover a possible solution. They’re reintroduced to Dave and Carol Johnson, friends they haven’t seen for over 20 years. The Johnsons have become small. Literally. Thanks to the Human Scale and Sustainability Institute, they’ve undergone a shrinking process that has rendered them five inches tall—and they couldn’t be happier. Given their reduced needs for housing and shelter, they’ve become overnight multimillionaires, and they’re adding to their bank account steadily by selling the shrinking process to others. What’s more, now that their carbon footprint is so small, they’re doing their part for the environment. Their consumption is niggardly compared with when they were full-sized, and they generate proportionately less waste. To illustrate, one of the Institute’s scientists holds up a half-filled garbage bag and proudly proclaims, “I hold in my hand all of the uncompostable waste produced by 36 people over four years!” Living small will leave the current problems of overpopulation and environmental stresses such as climate change behind us. There’s a catch, of course. The shrinking is irreversible. But Dave reassures them. He and Carol now live in Leisureland, a tented development for the small in New Mexico. There they go through their daily rounds of golf, yoga, and gourmet dining untroubled by the worries of the past. What’s more, there’s not much in the way of insects and other critters to endanger them. (Remember Gulliver under attack by mosquitoes in Brobdingnag?)
Payne spends considerable time with the transformational process, milking it for all the humor it can yield. The first joke is that after being anesthetized, the shrinking candidates are put on gurneys and wheeled into a large antiseptic factory, where their bodies are shaven and their teeth removed. When the process is over their now five-inch bodies are lifted with spatulas and put on size-adjusted gurneys to be wheeled into the recovery room.
When Paul awakens, his first impulse is to check his privates, and you can see his relief upon discovering that they’re still in place, presumably at the right proportional size.
But his intact equipment will not have its accustomed receptacle. Audrey balked at the last moment and didn’t undergo the change. Well, who could blame her? Spending the rest of your life looking up at your now-monstrous and perhaps uncharitable friends and relations wouldn’t be a comforting prospect, would it?
Paul is a decent but dim fellow. He means well, but his submissive personality makes him an easy mark for Utopian schemers. Now bereft of his wife, Paul finds no consolation in the stately manor he purchased in Leisureland. So he sells it and moves into a high-rise condominium development, where he meets Dusan, a shady Serb who has undergone the transformation not in the cause of environmentalism but solely because he’s intent upon acquiring its economic and sybaritic benefits. As a small person, he explains to a stunned Paul, he can take advantage of new markets. To illustrate, he holds up a Cuban Cohiba cigar, which full-size would cost $50 but miniaturized can be sold in great quantities for a dollar a piece to the tiny millionaires of his acquaintance. And then there are the women, most of whom have left behind whatever parenting responsibilities they once had to embrace unfettered hedonism. Whoopee, it’s party time. Sounds like what we’ve been hearing about senior communities in Florida.
At first Paul is wary of his new neighbor, but then succumbs to his siren call of wine, women, and song. At least for a while. Then he meets Dusan’s Vietnamese cleaning woman, Ngoc Lan Tran (perfectly played by the lovely Thai actress Hong Chau), and he swerves into another path altogether. Paul takes note that Tran’s left leg has been amputated just below her knee. Although she never complains, she walks with great pain. Having been an in-house occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks, he examines her leg and tells her that he can do something for her pain. Once he does, Tran is so pleased she insists he come to her slum apartment building next door to Leisureland. Many of the building’s inhabitants have medical problems, and she reasons that Paul can help them also. Tran is a natural meliorist. Her own suffering has fostered her determination to alleviate that of others.
Tran’s building is a dreary, overcrowded affair, providing the minimum in housing and domestic comforts to the poor and unwanted ignored by the smug Leisurelanders.
And it’s here that Payne takes his biggest risk with his film. To play Tran, Hong Chau has been made up to be a plain-looking woman who talks in pidgin English. Despite these manifest deficiencies, Paul takes up her cause and in so doing finds himself falling for her romantically.
You can see why the film disappeared from the theaters so quickly. Directors have long dared to dramatize cross-cultural romance between people of different races. Think of William Holden falling under the spell of the beautiful Eurasian actress Nancy Kwan in a sanitized adaptation of Richard Mason’s novel The World of Suzie Wong. Tran, however, is quite without Kwan’s charms. Payne has deliberately emphasized her romantic liabilities. Paul falls for her not because she’s attractive, but rather because she’s so selflessly virtuous. How many American films would risk this premise?
As for the sustainability theme, Payne ridicules it as just another example of America’s devotion to virtue-signaling. In his sales pitch to Paul, Dave cheerfully acknowledges that the Institute’s emphasis on sustainability is crap. The reason to get small, he observes, is to save yourself.
He echoes Voltaire’s advice in Candide: Put away your exorbitant moralism and cultivate your own garden.
Watching Payne’s film, I was reminded of a science-fiction movie from 1966, John Frankenheimer’s Seconds. It also mocks middle-class presumptions about what constitutes the good life. It’s a much darker work, but like Downsizing it uses allegory to develop its themes. Here the protagonist begins as an East Coast banker who’s seduced by a clandestine organization that offers bored middle-aged clients a second chance at life. Here, too, physical transformation is the supposed key to a fulfilled life. The transformation is not provided by miniaturization, but by reconstructive and plastic surgeries. After undergoing the medical process, the portly banker steps forth as Rock Hudson living a swinging bachelor life in an upscale Malibu beach house without the inconveniences of family responsibilities. (There’s a bit of a joke here.) It’s the masculine dream of sybaritic freedom. What follows is a ghastly satire on the American pursuit of eternal youth through self-invention seemingly made possible by science, wealth, and a complete absence of moral sense. Alas, however well-designed, Leisurelands of any kind can only offer temporary and wholly unsatisfying respite from our mortal anxieties.
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