by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday December 22, 2017


You would hardly expect Alexander Payne -- the director of such tongue-in-cheek and down to earth fare as "About Schmidt," "Election," "Sideways," and "Nebraska" -- to venture into the realm of speculative fiction, and yet here we are. With "Downsizing," Payne takes a sci-fi trope old enough to have lapsed from adventure movies like "Fantastic Voyage" to comedy shtick like "InnerSpace" and "Honey I Shrunk the Kids" and turns it into a barbed exploration of the ways in which hope and despair commingle.

the film's premise is straightforward: Once Norwegian scientists figure out how to miniaturize living creatures, they initiate a push to use the new technology to counteract population growth. Shrinking human beings to a stature of just under half a foot, they figure, is the best way to minimize human consumption of resources and leave a lighter footprint on the planet.

But there are other effects, more economic than ecological. When Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a young couple stuck living in Paul's childhood home because they lack the financial means to upgrade to a home of their own, hear about the monetary advantages of "going small" -- diamond bracelets and palatial homes at incredibly reduced prices! -- they decide to take the plunge and live the good life, relocating from Omaha to a special colony in New Mexico. Their new community is a tiny (but extensive) city kept snug within a few acres surrounded by a wall and sheltered by a fine mesh net to keep out birds and insects. (One wonders what they'll do come the next decent hailstorm, but we've ignored the laws of physics and blology this far, so we might as well see what happens next.)

Large or small, people are people -- a point the film makes in no uncertain terms as matters progress -- and before long the problems of the full-sized world, both trivial and overwhelming, have caught up with this new strain of petite bourgeoisie. Concerns about terrorism and tales of illegal migration fill the airwaves, while minorities living under repressive regimes find themselves forcibly reduced in size as well as in number. When things take a dire turn for Paul and Audrey, the film shoots off in a number of unpredictable directions; a Serbian playboy (Christopher Waltz), reclusive survivalists, an activist Vietnamese humanitarian (Hong Chau), and a whole new twist on the perpetual underclass all come into play. It takes some patience but if you follow along the zig-zagging plot eventually makes a kind of overall sense.

Payne, who co-wrote the film with Jim Taylor, has ignored some glaring practical questions that attend his central premise, but not at the expense of less obvious lines of inquiry (and the opportunity for some striking visual details). While this isn't a comedy, neither is it without humor, much of it dry and downplayed. (There's a running gag about Paul always having to correct people on how to pronounce his last name; that's about as jokey as the film gets.) Neither is it really an adventure film, unless hopping from place to place and from one emotionally complicated situation to the next counts.

But "Downsizing" is stuffed with ideas, which is in itself a pleasure. The film weaves a sprawling and somewhat lopsided net into which to herd all its notions, but when it at long last draws up into a recognizable narrative shape it's sort of impressive -- a sci-fi tinged drama striving for a level of low-key affect and maturity of genre on par with "Synecdoche, New York" or "Her."


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.