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Review: "Downsizing"

Earlier this week I was reading about how President Donald J. Trump shockingly removed climate change from the list of global threats in the latest rendering of his administration's national security strategy. "Fake News" has reached critical mass, it would seem. As 2017 comes to a close, and the axis of the Earth and human existence spins wildly closer to extinction, along comes this imperfect, well-meaning, occasionally hilarious, and ultimately touching motion picture from Oscar-winner Alexander Payne. The film is Downsizing and it stars the face of the American white male: Matt Damon. Whatever public relations shit storm Damon may find himself in during the days leading up to the film's release shouldn't detract from what really is a golden and quietly surprising performance. This is good work by the former Will Hunting.

Downsizing takes place in the near future where a group of Norwegian scientists have successfully created a procedure that shrinks people down to a few inches in a global effort to sustain resources and wrangle an alternative solution to population control. On the surface, the film sets itself up as prime social satire. We meet Damon's Paul Safranek (the mispronunciation of his last name becomes a recurring punchline) and his seemingly content wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) early in the film. Paul works as an occupational therapist at an Omaha Steaks packing factory. The modest home they live in used to belong to Paul's late mother, who suffered from medical woes. The daily life in Nebraska is pretty ordinary, but like most people Paul and Audrey worry about finances and how long they're able to stretch the dollars they have. They don't have any kids but that doesn't mean that house-buying is on their affordable horizon. That is until they attend a twenty-year high school reunion and see their old friends Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis) and his wife Carol (Maribeth Monroe) show up to the event shrunken and carried around in a glass box with miniature furniture. Much to Paul's surprise and encouragement, Dave has found living the smaller life greatly rewarding.

And with that Paul and Audrey begin the journey to having themselves shrunk. Their location of choice to live out the rest of their lives is Leisureland, a miniature oasis where their combined income will translate to $12 million after they go small. Some surprising developments happen along the way and once the narrative shrinks down to the ground level view of Leisureland, we soon realize that big or small, people are still people and they have the same flaws and disappointments regardless of how fantastic the circumstances may be. Part of the brilliance of Downsizing is how matter of fact it treats the larger than life (pun?) premise of its plot. All the players in the film still struggle with the day-to-day tasks of being human; craving affection, passing time and looking for purpose.

Since Downsizing premiered in the film festival circuit earlier in the fall, it's garnered its fair share of haters. Some of that can be credited to how Payne switches gears in the second hour, moving the focus to a supporting character named Ngoc Lan Tran (Inherent Vice's Hong Chau). I won't say much to not spoil anything, but I can say two things: 1) Chau is wonderful in the role and will surely be nominated for an Oscar and 2) Payne's decision to change the direction (and ultimately tone) the film was on is brave and I feel it pays off. Downsizing could've been a light comedy of visual gags (e.g. the life size saltine cracker a miniature nurse carries around a hospital) but it ends up being an unexpectedly philanthropic parable about why we even try to do anything in this slowly quickly dying world.

It also is a revelation in the Payne canon. For much of his filmography, Payne's stories were about what lengths (often darkly hilarious) we had to go through in order to sustain individual autonomy. Jim McAllister had to lose his marriage and job in his efforts to dethrone Tracy Flick from the system of school government he saw being exploited in Election. Matt King had to accept his wife's infidelity before being able to draw closure on the foot of his wife's hospital death bed in The Descendants. But these characters ultimately regain control of their life and environment, even though they suffer greatly in the process. In Downsizing, Payne has his first true pushover character in Paul, and it's an appropriate fit. Paul becomes a vessel for us to identify with Payne's new mantra, which is less about individual autonomy and more about service to humanity and charity (as broad as that sounds). It's warm and fuzzy and sometimes cheesy but it's also stirringly urgent. We live in a time where hate and bigotry rules the land and damn it if I wasn't moved by a big budget studio film that spent an arm and a leg to visualize how fulfilling it is to empathize and care for people in need, let alone be brave enough to embrace a literal change of one's own personal view of the world. Say what you will, but I found it encouraging and timeless. Downsizing is one of the year's very best films.

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