Movies/TV

Review: 'Downsizing' makes for a great tall tale about getting small

Audrey and Paul (Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon) and friends check out an option for a new way of living.
Audrey and Paul (Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon) and friends check out an option for a new way of living.

Movies are the most popular form of mass entertainment in the world, but they’re constantly being accused of sidestepping originality, of telling the same stories over and over. That won’t be the case with “Downsizing” which, though it would fit comfortably in the category of science fiction, also gets into areas of social justice, the economy, the environment and a bit of romance ... and it’s both thought-provoking and funny.

The newest film from eclectic writer-director Alexander Payne and his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor (they both collaborated on “Citizen Ruth,” “Election,” “About Schmidt” and “Sideways”) does have nods to the shifting size component of “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and to the starting life anew factor of “Seconds” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But I can’t think of another movie about Norwegian scientists hoping to save the world by shortening the world’s population to a height of 5 inches so people will take up less space, will consume less food, will produce less human waste and, if they play their cards right, will become wealthy. You haven’t heard that story before, have you?

It opens in Bergen, Norway, at a science institute where secret experiments are conducted on white rats, and where, one day the place bursts into unbridled excitement when a researcher screams out, “It works!”

Five years later, whatever “worked” is presented at a science conference. After a few words about overpopulation being mankind’s biggest threat, and the revelation the institute has been working on a remedy, the attendees are introduced to Norwegian researcher Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen, 5-inches tall, standing at a tiny dais, speaking into a teeny microphone, telling of living under a dome, in a “self-sustaining community of the small.” And that’s just the film’s prologue.

Ten years later, with downsizing having become a regular, if only somewhat popular, practice, we look in on occupational therapist and nice guy Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who are happy – except that he didn’t follow his dream of becoming a surgeon – but are having financial difficulties. Then they check out Leisure Land, a “small people community” where glitzy spokesman Jeff Lonowski (Neil Patrick Harris) makes a presentation about selling your possessions, getting small and living the good life for less, signaling the film’s first major step toward biting-edge satire.

Breezy and funny and kind of ridiculous up to this point, the script brings in a bit of darkness concerning Paul and Audrey’s situation, and whether the shrinking procedure, for which there’s no reversal – once you’re small, you’re small – is the way for them to go. The decision: “Sure, let’s go for it.” But when Paul groggily wakes up, 5 inches tall, his first words are, “I thought my wife is supposed to be here with me.” Funny, serious, funny again, this movie shoots off in many moods and directions.

One year later, small Paul is ensconced in a small apartment building, with a loud, carefree, ever-partying small neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), living above him, offering advice to Paul: “Get out of this place, open your eyes, live a little.”

If there weren’t enough visual absurdities about normal versus small before this point, they proliferate now. Paul walks around with a gigantic yellow rose, Dusan has a full-size dollar bill in a frame on his wall. Look around, you’ll find more. But this also is when a new character is brought in: Dusan’s Vietnamese housekeeper Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a loud, bossy and generous former dissident who has started her own cleaning business, and will change Paul’s life as much as his medical procedure did.

When the setting shifts back to Norway, with its landscapes of grandeur and beauty that give the film an air of peace and harmony, the script evolves into an end-of-the-world scenario, where unchecked climate change, caused by normal-size humans, will destroy humankind. Yet, even with that threat, the focus remains on Paul and the real reason he’s gone through all of this: his inability to find himself. With so much humor and gravity swirling through the film, it’s most interesting it has a deeply moving ending that’s spiked with one last shot of funniness.

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