Small thinking and Downsizing

I Redbox’d Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, fully expecting an unusual, indie-ish film with a decent special effects budget and commentary on human excess. What I found was a hodgepodge of themes so mashed together as to resemble a brown sludge instead of a solid idea.

It’s an intriguing concept; A scientist discovers how to shrink humans to 5 inches tall, reducing their carbon footprint. Married couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristin Wiig) decide to undergo the procedure so they can have the home of their dreams, only to have Audrey leave Paul when he is shrunk first. It all kinda meanders from there.

downsizing

Downsizing touches (but doesn’t commit) on the following themes:

  1. Ecological responsibility/the Green Movement
  2. Economic/Socio-economic disparities
  3. Emotional — Paul dealing with a new life after being abandoned by Audrey
  4. Political/xenophobic

The problem with all these, albeit great thematic elements, is the fact that we bounce between them, never fully embracing enough to make a strong premise.

From this point on there will be spoilers (including the ending)

The Green Movement

The scientists who created the process of downsizing did so in order to reduce our emissions and help save the world. The term “downsizing” comes from the idea of simplifying one’s life for overall improvement. A company may downsize to cut costs, or an individual may downsize their home to make it more manageable to take care of.

The movie also illustrates the green movement by showing the shared cars in the tiny city Paul moves in to. Everyone shares what appear to be electric cars.

By the end of the movie, 3% of the world’s population has downsized, but it’s not enough to keep the polar ice caps from melting. Too little, too late. Pun intended?

Socio-economic Disparities

The most interesting theme in the movie, from my point of view, were the socio-economic differences present among the little people.

At first it appears that mostly the middle class folks downsize because their money is worth more when they undergo the process. They can afford lavish mansions and live comfortably off their savings. Other people downsize as a personal choice, so escape their current life and have a fresh start.

Later on, we’re introduced to the lower-class (and mostly ethnic) residents of Paul’s city. These people still have to work for a living, some of them as maids to clean the rich people’s mansions and apartments. Paul is introduced to this world when he meets Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). She was shrunk against her will and now cleans apartments while hobbling on a poorly designed prosthetic leg.

hong chau

The disparity is shown in stark relief as Paul sees Ngoc’s side of town. First off, they have to take a crowded bus which takes them through the wall of the city’s enclosure and into a dismal town outside the wall. If that journey through the wall doesn’t say a lot about economic disparity, I don’t know what does.

Paul’s interaction with this woman is the heart of the story, and frankly what the story should have stuck to. It’s touching, it’s smart and it’s a logical endpoint for Paul to reach some conclusions on what he is worth. He can help these people with so many of their problems, either through his occupational therapy training or by helping them get food.

Sadly we had a few other themes to muck it all up.

Emotional

I tacked this on because it’s more of a plot point that doesn’t get resolved.

Audrey abandons Paul right after he’s downsized. This is something that is given away in the trailer, and lost a lot of emotional impact since it was not a surprise. It also felt very forced. Audrey never seemed thrilled about downsizing. Why did they go through with going to get the procedure? This is likely more a problem with the character than the story.

After that plot point (Audrey leaving) we get no payoff. Sure we see Paul mulling through life post-Audrey, but we don’t get a nice book-ending moment. He doesn’t see Audrey again, doesn’t speak to her, doesn’t really come to terms with it. We can argue that his friendship and later relationship with Ngoc serves that purpose, but I feel something was missing.

Political/Xenophobic

As soon as there’s anyone who’s different, there’s going to be people who hate them.

A man approaches Paul at his going-away party prior to downsizing. The man is noticeably annoyed, and says the little people should not benefit from the rest of the country’s taxes since they don’t pay any taxes, and that they should only have a portion of a vote when it comes to elections.

The guy is a racist jerk motif to the tee…but is he wrong?

Of course he is but part of the problem with the downsizing concept is that it’s not fully fleshed out. How is it economically viable to have these little people living off their savings for the rest of their lives? Forget the conversion rate of the tiny houses being so cheap, what about whenever they need to buy products or services outside their tiny cities? Not everything is produced in the tiny city. Their money can’t possible retain it’s inflated value in the outside world. That bottle of vodka from the trailer should be worth a million dollars!

And how are these people not paying taxes? How did that slip the government’s radar? Sure, the process was hailed as a tax write off because #greenmovement but …how?

Despite all that, and the interesting parallels with real-life xenophobia…the hatred between normals and little people is never expressed again.

Ending Thoughts

Downsizing was a mixed bag. Sure it had an interesting insights into the pros and cons of this imaginary medical procedure….but the fact that it couldn’t focus and elaborate on some key elements made it a bit of a mess.

If you are about to watch it, prepare for a slow beginning and meandering plot until Ngoc Lan Tran arrives, because she’s a wonderful addition. Maybe the story should have been more about her?

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