First off, what you have to know is that Downsizing isn’t the light comedy the ads and trailers have been suggesting. Funny? Yes, but dark comedy at best. And, sure, it is a seriously good social satire straight out of the Golden Age of science fiction. But, at its heart, it is a tale of self-discovery and humanity more than anything else. Like director and co-writer Alexander Payne’s previous film gem, Nebraska, the focus this sprawling landscape and tale is really an individual learning to navigate himself and the world.
Matt Damon’s (The Great Wall) journey is heartbreakingly compelling and easy to identify with, like all of Payne’s main characters. Through Damon we learn the new world. And it is a world populated with some interesting characters, in a broadly aware Upstairs/Downstairs sort of way.
Most notably is Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) who sweeps onto the screen, grabs it, and shakes it till the end of the final reel. It is a performance that is getting a lot of deserved notice. If Damon’s performance is getting less applause, it is because Payne makes Damon into both main character and catalyst, observer and actor. He doesn’t allow him to become a full-fledged person until the very last frame.
While Hong is a powerhouse, she is also about the only real female influence in the cast. The rest of the supporting cast, each solid in their own way, are men: Rolf Lassgård (A Man Called Ove), Christoph Waltz (The Legend of Tarzan) and, as a delightful surprise, Udo Kier (Nymphomaniac). Each of them provides influence, points of view, and choices in Damon’s world. There are also a slew of bit roles and cameos throughout.
Payne, and oft-time co-writer Jim Taylor, put in some serious effort to think through the ideas of Downsizing. They approached the world as another one of the main characters and really put effort into considering how the events would change the world in a real way. Unlike other general release satires, like Idiocracy, Downsizing is intended to be a believable and natural outcome of the world impacted by one significant event: miniaturization made possible. The effort shows and makes the story all that more effective, especially with the wonderfully subtle production design and special effects.
Downsizing is likely going to disappoint a lot of people, and surprise many more. Opening weekend is almost certainly aimed at the wrong audience thanks to the ad campaign, but I suspect it will find its viewers by word of mouth fairly quickly. It is a wonderfully done piece delivered at the right time for its message. And, as always with Payne, it is handled with emotional surety and care. You can’t see this film and not hear the questions it raises on both a global and personal scale. Admittedly, there are more questions than answers. But it is, ultimately, a personally positive message.
If you want something with a bit more meat on it than the typical holiday fare, this is certainly a good option. Ignore the trailers and what you think you know about it and go with the flow when the movie begins. The opening 15 minutes set the tone for the rest of what’s to come, and it is great two hours that follow. But whether you see it now or later, see it eventually.