Down on Downsizing

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Ngoc Lan (Chau) and Safranek (Damon) seek to find their way in an unfamiliar world.

Downsizing is a cinematic disaster. It offers an intriguing proposal: What if we could extend the viability of human life on Earth by literally downsizing – genetically mutating people and scaling down everything by more than 90%. This premise makes for a fascinating entrée to the story and some genuinely fun and interesting visual experiences, particularly in the interactions between the big world and the small world. The film loses its way; however, as it plays out the realization of its intentionally overstated (I believe) utopian vision.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon in a fat suit) is an average, working class guy simply trying to make ends meet. After repeated road blocks, he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) decide to concentrate their relatively meager net worth and “get small,” joining one of the growing number of potentially Earth-saving miniaturized communities. Paul faces an existential crisis as part of this transition, which thickens an already intriguing plot. The story shifts, then, from being an exploration of the implications of its initial premise (the move from big to small) to the unfolding of Paul’s personal journey, along with the journeys of several others we encounter along the way. The film suffers from the tension between these competing aims as the story meanders with no apparent end. The story simply tries to carry more weight than it can bear, and there were several times when I hoped the film would find some merciful end to save any good that remained with the characters and the story. Downsizing’s inability to scale back its own narrative thread lines is what makes this film a disaster.

The saving grace comes when we meet Ngoc Lan Tran (portrayed by newcomer Hong Chau). The strength and clarity of her performance starkly contrasts the flatness and waywardness of everything else in this film. Ngoc Lan’s story provides a refreshing moment that eventually leads to the resolution of Paul’s existential crisis. Because this is a poorly produced film with a surprisingly flat cast, Hong Chau’s performance stands out and her Golden Globe nomination for supporting actress is warranted.

Beyond Chau’s performance, there is also a surprising religious theme in Downsizing. Ngoc Lan finds meaning and purpose for her life in the small world in “praising Jesus,” reading her Bible, and serving “the least of these” (Matthew 25). In the course of the film, Ngoc Lan’s Christian faith not only compels her, but becomes a vital part of Paul’s resolution as the story unfolds. Christians who hear about this dimension of the film might get excited that “Hollywood” is finally on the right track, and I imagine a few clips from Downsizing may end up in Bible classes and sermons. However, even this moment of grace in the film is not enough to save its cinematic failings.

Downsizing strives to be a film that imaginatively addresses the stark reality of the results of climate change. By making too stark a case; however, it fails to be convincing. Because of the ultimately hopeless stance the film takes on the issue, the resolution reached by some in the story becomes a parody of the contemporary response to global warming and its ultimate end. The response of the lead characters to the stark realities of a world bent on self-destruction is finding meaning and purpose by loving and serving those in need. It’s a nihilist’s gospel and a resolution that could have surfaced in this film in so many different and better ways.

Like every issue film, Downsizing began with good intentions and it does enjoy moments where it is truly endearing. But on the whole it fails cinematically, leaving this viewer feeling like there was a better movie somewhere in there if things had been edited differently.

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