Downsizing (Alexander Payne, 2017)

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Downsizing begins as a premise: what if the technology existed to shrink people down to five inches tall, while retaining everything else about them? Scarcity would not exactly cease to be a problem, but resources would instantly become vastly more available, as it would require far less in terms of material to feed, clothe, or house a human being. The result is a vast increase in wealth for the shrunken: the middle class instantly transformed into the idle rich. The first third of Alexander Payne’s film follows just such a middle class couple, Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, as they decide to undergo the downsizing process. There are informational meetings with sales reps, goodbye parties with friends and loved ones, and the clinical downsizing process itself, right down to where the shrunken people are gently scooped out of their now-oversized hospital beds with spatulas. Damon’s dream of post-capital luxury however, is crudely broken when he learns that he wife has backed out of the procedure. The resulting divorce leaves him not happily retired in a palatial mansion, but doomed to work as telephone support for Land’s End.

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The second third of the film shows that, even were we to solve our scarcity problem, without further societal reform, situations for the working class would not much improve. Damon lives in a small, uninspired apartment, but even that is an improvement on the lives of the people who actually have to clean up after the rich. Hong Chau plays a Vietnamese refugee cleaning woman who had been a political prisoner who was forcibly shrunken by her government, then escaped to the US by hiding in a TV box with several comrades, she was the only survivor. Bonding over her prosthetic leg (Damon had been an occupational therapist in the larger world), Damon witnesses the awful conditions of the truly poor, a shantytown high-rise (it looks like a set left over from Dredd or The Raid) just outside the borders of the lush world of tiny wealth. Damon begins helping Chau out as she feeds and helps the sick and disabled poor of the slum, finding a kind of fulfillment filling in the gaps of capitalism. But the final third of the film finds the two traveling to Scandinavia, back to the original downsized colony, where the leaders there have decided that merely shrinking humanity can’t do enough to stave off ecological collapse and so have developed a new scheme to escape the apocalypse.

This is probably the best Alexander Payne film since Election, or at least his short in Paris  je t’aime. The humor comes mostly from Damon’s bewildered everyman bouncing off the oddity of everything around him, in particular a pair of deliciously ludicrous lounge lizards played by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, a Serbian smuggler and some kind of a boat captain, respectively. The film belongs to Hong Chau, though, she’s its heart and soul, a magnificent, nuanced performance that has nonetheless drawn criticism for her use of a thick accent (modeled on her parents’ accent) and broken English. It didn’t play as offensive to me (a white guy) but rather as the best example of the kind of finding unique humanity underneath a stereotype that Payne has done at his best. The accents in Downsizing (both Chau’s and Waltz’s) aren’t themselves the objects of humor, but rather their non-standard diction is used to cut to the core of American pretensions about ourselves and our society, just as the film cuts through the illusions that cloud our economic discourse to lay bare both the nature of class in our society and our very human desire to run away from our problems rather than work to fix them. It’s an extraordinarily goofy movie that is one of the year’s best.

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