There’s a generation of American filmmakers expressing a similar kind of existential crisis in their latest work — a crisis triggered by climate change and our increasingly tenuous presence on this planet. Darren Aronofsky’s bloody fever dream “mother!” is a viscerally angry indictment of our vampiric tendencies, a ragged cry for help. Alexander Payne, one of Aronofsky’s contemporaries, also explores our relationship to our environment, our future and our fellow human beings in the satirical dramedy “Downsizing,” which is a far more mannered, even twee, take.
In “Downsizing,” the cure for climate change, overpopulation and class struggle is simple: Just shrink yourself. You’ll use less, have more and produce less waste. When a Norwegian scientist Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) perfects the process with the planet in mind, it seems almost too good to be true — good for the earth, and good for your wallet.
Midwestern occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) decides to downsize not for the good of the environment, but the good of himself. It seems the only way he and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) can have everything they’ve always wanted — or that she’s always wanted. Their drab existence can transform into a big (small) fancy house, a playground of manicured lawns, new appliances and a life of leisure, in Leisure Land, simply because they’re smaller. But there are downsides to downsizing, including leaving everything and everyone you know behind. Giving up your old life, as dreary as it may be, turns out to be a deal-breaker for some, including Audrey.
Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have dreamed up every detail of what it might be like to be small, from the cute — enormous flowers sold as luxury items — to the more practical — the fact that class inequality and economies of labor persist even in the seemingly perfect world of Leisure Land, especially around its borders.
Lonely Paul shakes up his downsized life when he attends a wild party thrown by his neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz). That experience gets him outside of his boring existence, puts him in touch with the high-class hoi polloi and the lower-class workers, including the magnetic Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident downsized against her will as punishment. She smuggled herself out in a TV box and has become the Robin Hood of Leisure Land: collecting food and supplies from the wealthy homes she cleans, providing for the poor of her shabby tenement community.
Paul finds himself caught between two visionaries — Ngoc Lan, who serves the immediate needs of those around her, and Jurgen, the downsizing visionary and environmental prophet who lives in a Norwegian hygge paradise. Jurgen’s convinced the end is nigh, and he and his people run for the hills, retreating into a mountain bunker, in the hopes of sustaining life during the great extinction. Paul has to choose — does he look to the unknown future, or the known present?
Despite the tortured premise, and the unnecessarily bloated narrative, Payne does finally arrive at a poignant message about the planet and our existence on it. Do we run away or stay where we are and fight the good fight? Seal ourselves away or help someone who needs help right now? It’s just that, a lot like his protagonist Paul, the film seems overly pleased with itself for arriving at that message, which is honestly, too little too late.
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Uwe Boll, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis
Directed by Alexander Payne
Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
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Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.