In Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s big idea is to try to treat his film’s title as literally as possible, positing a world where a Norwegian scientist has invented a shrink ray that can reduce organic matter to a thousandth of its original size. Why? Well, since we can’t enlarge the Earth and its finite resources, maybe we can shrink ourselves to make them last longer.
We’re conditioned these days to assume that the stakes of any story are the whole world, which goes double in a story with an environmentalist conceit. But Downsizing isn’t about saving the world. Downsizing is neither an environmental screed nor a skewering of environmentalist rhetoric; it simply builds a world and tries to imagine Matt Damon living in it.
Damon plays Paul, an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks who eventually shrinks himself, leading not to a panacea of fulfillment, but to a woolly journey of self-discovery (not to mention some amazing sight gags, including one involving what I can only describe as a “man spatula”). Downsizing is more high-concept than metaphorical, but if there’s one aspect that hits close to home, it’s Paul’s realization that the only way he’s ever going to be able afford a better life is by shrinking himself. It’s a reverse American dream: Rather than increasing your capacity to consume, you reduce your consumption to fit your capacity.
If Downsizing skewers anything, it’s the expectation that a film should have all the answers. Like life, it drags a bit in the last third and it isn’t nearly as fun at the end as it is at the beginning, but there are some incredible moments along the way. It’s neither a perfect comedy nor a perfect allegory, but so long as you don’t watch it looking for a unified theory, it’s funny and thought-provoking and great.