All it really did try to do is make a social-political message and even then, it was undistinguished, murky and badly executed. But you might think Downsizing is an easy target considering it was a commercial and critical flop. The mass consensus on Downsizing is. Despite this, I feel like everyone has a curiosity about this film, not intense enough to actually go watch it obviously. But intense enough that you’d turn to a video essayist to satiate that curiosity, and since no one else has done it yet I figured I might as well be the one to do it, and who knows maybe I’ll try and legitimise myself some more by making up film terminology.
Smol movies Downsizing was sold as what I’d call a smol movie. Not a small movie, a smol movie. An example of a small movie is lord of the rings with those hobbits or Time Bandits with those dwarfs. A smol movie would be something like Arriety or The Borrowers, tiny little people that fit in your palm. Small people experience the world the same way as you do, their shortness mostly functioning as a stylistic decision more than anything else.
Those munchkins perceive that yellow brick road just the same as anyone else in The Wizard Of Oz. Smol people experience our world in a completely different way, an ordinary unthreatening bowl of cereal becomes something dangerous and terrifying when you’re a smol person. These types of films are often underrated and unappreciated.
They a breed a very specific type of charm which makes them really fun to engage with and I generally rate smol movies an 8/10. But Downsizing isn’t a Smol movie, as much as it’s trying to convince us that it is one. It starts it’s trickery as we a see Norwegian scientist invent shrinking technology. We then see a press conference where it’s unveiled to the world. This segment goes on for 15 minutes, we see Paul played by Matt Damon, respond to this new discovery. His reaction is: ‘oh that’s cool’ He goes home to his mother and gives her an injection.
From there we suddenly go ten years into the future. The concept of downsizing is re-introduced to us, now everyones doing it and there several smol cities. The world has had to adapt to service smol people and there’s a lot of politics brewing.
The entire film could have started right here, I do not understand why we needed to watch a press conference on smol people. Paul is also reintroduced to us. He now has a wife instead of a mother, but not a whole lot has changed really.
Unsatisfied with life, Paul and his wife look into finding a new place to live. His wife seems to think it’s somehow realistic to be checking out mansions, despite the fact that Paul receives what I would assume is a pretty measly paycheck from his job as a workplace physiotherapist at… a meat factory? But Paul decides enough is enough, and after seeing how good some of his old friends have it, him and his wife opt to downsize. Because when you downsize everything cost less (jewel scene) and so they sign all the paperwork and boom congrats you’re smol now, but oh no your wife didn’t actually want to go smol and didn’t go through with it and now your smol and your wife wants to leeeeave you. This leaves Damon well and truly CUCKED.
Okay so we’ve got our elaborate set-up, our protagonist has just made a huge life decision and now he’s be forced to re-access his self-esteem, his lifestyle and all other manners of feelings that come with being jilted. He’s in a new environment, a modern city for little smurf people. Who knows where Downsizing will take us. Usually in a smol movie, when the protagonist turns smol, the 2nd act of the narrative begins. “I’m a secret government agent minding my own business.
Oh no I’m smol and inside a human body assisting an operation.” “I’m a young rapscallion with not a care in the world. Oh no I’m smol and fighting a scorpion.”
“I’m Jack Black and I work in a mail room. Oh no I’m a giant among these smol people.” Wait that’s not right. Anyway, you get my point. Because naturally, significantly changing a protagonist’s anatomy is a pretty big deal.
If you think of Spiderman, Freaky Friday or American Werewolf in London, those transformations lead the narrative and inform the main themes of the film. Whereas in Downsizing, it moves 1 year into the future and Paul Safranek is introduced to us again. He lives in a city as a recently divorced man, he works in a call centre and he just so happens to be smol. Aside from the occasional overly sized prop and dialogue, you wouldn’t even know these people were a few inches tall.
Which leaves the question; Why Did they make him smol in the first place? Is it because the writer director of this film, Alexander Payne, is a talentless hack? The Man Behind Downsizing You might be thinking to yourself what’s a triple A actor who’s known for such classics as Rounders, matt damon idoing in this strange movie about smol people? Well, I did some digging and managed to find out that Matt Damon is a huge fan of the writer/director of this film (Interview clip) Naturally I became curious about this, so I decided to check Alexander Payne out, this man is a beast. Alexander Payne writes and directs some of the most interesting, provocative, intimate, absurdist-character dramadies I have ever seen. I would highly recommend them if you are into stuff like this.
The fact that his films don’t seem to be in the public consciousness at all feels like a real tragedy. I’m not kidding when I say, I would put his film ‘Election’ on the same level as ‘Ferris Buellers day off’, ‘Heathers’ or ‘mean girls’. It’s proper classic material. So why haven’t you heard about him up until this point?
It’s probably the same reason why he’s so defined as a filmmaker. Alexnder Payne approaches his films with an articulate cynicism that finds its way into almost all his films. None of the characters he writes are good, kind or even likeable people. They’re pathetic, selfish, lying losers who look as ugly as they are.
They’re also denied the chance to redeem themselves and maintain their flaws to the end. These are not characters that you want to imagine yourself as. Everyone feels good vibing with Jules as he guns people down and quotes the bible, every sixteen year old who’s “so into film” wants to be Tyler Durden. But no one wants to project themselves onto these deplorable losers. It makes for a slightly uncomfortable viewing experience when you find yourself inevitably seeing your own ugliness being reflected in Alexander Payne’s characters.
With Downsizing however, Payne decided to focus on acts of kindness instead of acts of selfishness and we all know what happens when you shift from being negative to being positive. Your views drop. Paul Safranek, the protagonist of the film, is someone who’s ‘Quite nice’, ‘Polite’, ‘Timid’ and ‘Ordinary’. He’s pretty much a blank canvas, a fully grey speck.
He’s in a passionless relationship, a dead-end job and a vacant social life. This isn’t all too different from Paul Giamanti’s character, Miles, in Sideways, which is also directed by Alexander Payne. They’re both schlubs, the difference is in the quality of writing. Miles has clear goals, he wants to be an author and a desire for intimacy.
When we see him fail at these goals, we see the true character come out, we see the characteristics that truly make them pathetic and we feel empathy. It creates an intimacy between that character and the audience, making the narrative gripping and immersive. Paul Safranek is a man with no goals and nothing really to lose.
The decisions he makes are inconsistent, he just goes with the flow and follows the crowd. This is called a Lazy Protagonist and NO I DIDN’T MAKE THAT UP. He asks this woman he’s dating if he can meet her child she says no. So he goes to a smol people party, which is basically a normal person party since the only thing that’s regular sized is this rose.
While there he takes ecstasy and there’s this trippy drug montage which is definitely the best part of this film. He’s shown to have the romantic goal of wanting to spouse up again only for him to suddenly have his conservative, timid characteristics be replaced for a man out to party into he drops. So this is the start of his character arc right? This is where our protagonists finally starts to change? No, not really, he wakes up after the party fully back to the same hapless nervous man he was before. While recovering from the night before, he notices a woman is walking with a limp.
Because Paul is the best darn physio therapist in smol town, he’s able to tell Noc Lan exactly what pain she’s feeling. Almost like how Matt Damon can tell what cards everyone has in Rounders. Noc Lan is so impressed with Matt Damons psychic abilities that she demands that he comes back to her place to y’know… offer medical assistance to her friend with cancer. Paul obviously accepts because he can’t make any decisions for himself. He’s lazy, he’s a lazy protagonist.
Remember what I said Earli- He comes back later and Noc Lan’s friend is dead, which I think is seen as a joke… Okaay. We’re treated to some brilliant dialogue and a golden globe performance from Hong Chau. But oh no he broke her prosthetic foot, now he has to be her bitch boy and carry her around and help her look after poor people. That’s right there are poor smol people and yes they live in smol slums. I blame smol trump.
At this point in film, it becomes clear that Downsizing has a social political message. However it’s a little unclear as to what that message is. Also, by the films own logic, it’s unclear how there could be poor smol migrants that live in a wooden box. The point of downsizing is that your money becomes more valuable when you shrink, diamond jewellery are shown to cost $80.
Is noc wan being paid 20 cents a day? After breaking her foot, Noc Wan aggressively forces Matt Damon to be her assistant. He does this out of guilt or because he’s too nice to say no. Either way he’s now going around the slums, offering medical assistance, collecting free food and cleaning houses. Remember when you thought this would be a smol movie, now you’re watching this kid with ring worm. That’s what it feels like to be cheated.
Going smol is seen as helping the environment, it produces less waste and solves the problem of over population, but the dark side is that fascist governments will shrink people against their will as a punishment. This is what happened to Noc Wan who was a political activists before she was made smol and became a cleaner. There doesn’t seem to any kind of building on these contrasting ideas and it seems like they’re in this film because Payne thought it would be a cool idea. Earlier in the film there’s an exchange where this man in a bar talks about how smol people shouldn’t have a right to vote, his argument makes sense and I was interested to see where this idea would be taken.
But the answer is nowhere, these ideas purely exist in the simplest of forms. Because none of the ideas in this film are ever built on, it ends up feeling fickle and empty with its political identity. After a few weeks, Noc Wan hasn’t been able to find a replacement foot. She now walks using a peg leg instead.
Paul is still helping her out, but luckily our friend Dushan has Paul’s back and comes up with a plan to get his friend out of the unfortunate predicament of cleaning houses. Dushan who’s played by Christopher Waltz is Paul’s neighbour and runs an import business. He illegally makes products for smol people and smuggles them in. Out of all the themes and ideas farted out by Downsizing, the most potent fart is on consumerism and capitalism.
The kind of people who would want to go smol are people who value expensive homes, items and lifestyles over their own anatomy. People who idealize a specific lifestyle presented to us in media, who are so desperate for it that they’d abandon meaningful relationships with their friends and family to leave in a perfectly clean city. Dushan is a character that functions to strip away that idea at the seams. Dustan in the embodiment of the capitalist ideology. He’s highly indulgent, uncaring and focused on money.
By he is never framed as anything other than a quippy friendly bro to Matt Damon. I thought he would take on the role as an antagonist for Paul, but it becomes clear that the film never wants to punish or even criticise Dushan. He’s pretty much only in this film to get Paul out of cleaning with Noc Wan. He tells Paul that he has a delivery to Norway and ask Paul to give him a hand. Paul accepts because agreeing to do things is what he does best.
Oh and Noc wan comes too because the scientist who invented Downsizing is going to be there and she wants to meet him. Kinda counter intuitive really. So now they are on their way to Norway, there isn’t much to say here except for the fact that Safranek and Noc Lan on the boat even though they have no chemistry. It feels awkward and they’re just sort of… together from this point onwards. The very next day, Paul wakes up to find the scientist who invented downsizing crying about the world ending.
It’s ending because methane gas is coming out of Antarctica!… what?… so we have racism, consumerism AND pollution, this film is the equivalent of a 22 year old white guy who’s just come back from his gap year, (listen man there’s so many people out there who need help, and the Bengali tigers are dying out, the only way we can change the world is by being true to ourselves and consuming less… gotta watch our carbon footprint man). The only leakage of methane gas I can observe is the gas coming out of Alexander Payne’s bottychoelo.
HO HOO. Good day sir. Once they get to Norway the whole place looks really nice like hobbit town and everyone starts getting ready for the end of the world. They’ve built a bunker and all the smol people are going to hide in it. They plan to live there for 200 years and then emerge to make a smol people paradise. everyones super nice and on that hippie vibe, and Matt Damon gets proper caught up in all of it, he looks the happiest he’s ever looked in the whole movie.
Look at him prance! so the hippie community invite them all to live with them in their bunker and Paul is 100% game but none of his mates are. They don’t even seem that phased about the approaching gas.
Noc Lan’s upset because she can’t figure out what Paul gave her, and neither can I to be honest. Paul has showed pretty much no emotion up until the point where he started playing the bongos. Paul says his goodbyes and enters the bunker.
But, he changes his mind half way and proposes his love to Noc Wan. Such a beautiful love story, he finally made a decision, such a filmic spectacle. Boy am I glad I watched all that smol people. They go back to leisureland and continue to help people. Then it just ends. It staggers and sputters about like a recently shot antelope stumbling towards a lake because it doesn’t want to embrace it’s inevitable death, it’s breathing is heavy, it has no energy, it slumps to the soft mossy floor, it hears the faint cries of it’s children in the distance and then.
Blank, no meaning, no purpose, just an isolated expulsion of energy, it ends. Paul goes back to doing exactly what he was doing 30 minutes ago, presumably in a relationship with a woman that is constantly belittling him. They carry on helping people in a world which is going to end due to pollution very shortly. I guess the end note of the film is to choose acts of kindness over selfish acts, that life is more fulfilling when your caring for people in a less fortunate situation than you. But when you clog up that very basic simple message with a whole bunch that’s not relevant or elaborated on it makes the most unsatisfying conclusion to any story. Film is built around actions and consequences, events big or small.
Alexander has a reputation of making films where very little things happen in them and characters that are unredeemable. But the events in his film are cathartic and have a sense of pathos. In Sideways, Jack cheats on his fiancé and then we have a consequence. In Citizen Ruth, characters make terrible life decisions and there’s visible consequences that motivate the plot forward.
Alexander Payne films usually have clear 2nd acts, which dictate the film’s conflict and frames the characters in a new environment which makes them uncomfortable. With Downsizing, so little actually happens that you spend the whole film trying to figure out its message or what it’s trying to say. You might be thinking that Downsizing is simply a standard bad movie. They have generic plots that we’ve all seen before.
This was Alexander Payne’s biggest production ever, he was working on this film for 7 years. The man is undeniably an auteur in his own right and Downsizing subverts expectations of smol movies and dares to try to do something different. It decides to abandon conventional narrative structure, which considering his writing credits, looks like a conscious decision. Alexander Payne’s films in the past has mostly received strong critical acclaim with a small box office return. It’s clear to me that at this point he is so stubborn and resistive to studio interference and feedback, that he pushed forward with a script that fundamentally didn’t work.