Little by Little

Nick Pinkerton on Downsizing

Alexander Payne, Downsizing, 2017, color, sound, 2 hours 15 minutes.

DOWNSIZING, ALEXANDER PAYNE’S SEVENTH FEATURE FILM, is an enormous movie—enormous in its ambition, and enormous in its ingenuity. As such, it is distinctly out of step with the times. Monumentality is acceptable in the action blockbuster, but when it comes to anything else, the small and the subtle and the half-toned are the markers of refined taste. Payne and his collaborator and frequent cowriter Jim Taylor produced one of the great American comedies about taste as a social marker, Sideways (2004), and so they must have known they were going way out on a limb here. What they’ve created is a nigh-unheard-of amalgam, welding together a high-concept special-effects comedy, à la Lily Tomlin vehicle The Incredible Shrinking Woman (1981) or Albert Brooks’s Defending Your Life (1991), with a subjectively oriented existential drama obliquely recalling Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952), the story of a Tokyo bureaucrat searching for meaning in a barren existence.

Payne and Taylor’s soul-sick seeker is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), a physical therapist specializing in repetitive stress employed by the Omaha Steaks meatpacking plant. (This section of the movie is set in Payne’s native Nebraska, but the film shot, for the most part, in Ontario.) When introduced, Paul is among a rapt crowd watching the announcement of a scientific breakthrough on the television news: the invention of a safe, irreversible process that shrinks folks down to Lilliputian size, affording both a solution to the high cost of living and the unsustainable environmental impact of the planet’s seven and a half billion occupants. Paul returns to his modest home to discuss the news with his ailing mother, but she can’t see past her own immediate suffering to find cause to celebrate the latest advancement. “Lots of people are in pain, mom,” he responds by way of nullifying her complaints, with an abstract compassion that sounds almost callous, “in all sorts of ways.” The very ideas of perspective and scale—of trying to place things in their “proper” size—will be the organizing visual and thematic principles of Payne’s film.

After an ellipsis of ten years, the human “downsizing” process has radically changed the wider world, but not much has happened in Paul’s life—mom, with her fibromyalgia flare-ups, has been replaced by a wife with migraines, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and the job and the routine and the house are all the same, with no hope of a big break in sight. Maintaining the status quo promises only a paycheck-to-paycheck life of repetitive stress, but by submitting to miniaturization, Paul and Audrey can trade genteel penury for a palatial mini-McMansion at Leisureland, a biodomed community in New Mexico. As Paul and Audrey go about making their decision to downsize, Payne and Taylor anchor their far-fetched setup by imagining all the practical, political, social, and economic exigencies that such a scientific upheaval might bring about, from plummeting normal-world property values to unchecked immigration to unbalanced tax burdens for large and small to the ability of dictatorships to shrink noisy dissidents out of sight. The premise of Downsizing, like that of any good science-fiction work, takes off from an observable real-world phenomenon. In this case it’s the current cult of minimalism in all its forms: the “tiny house movement”; the gradual device-driven elimination of the clutter of physical media from living spaces; the fetishization of ornament-free Scandinavian design—not for nothing are the scientists who perfect the process of miniaturization Norwegian. The film takes us through every stage of downsizing, a sequence that shows Payne’s understated visual intelligence at work. (Shot in widescreen by his frequent DP Phedon Papamichael, the movie finds correct frames always, and beautiful ones when it wants to—the silent setting of the sun on placid black water, for example.) The process begins with Paul and Audrey parting company to facilities separated by gender, and as they do he descends a long, white corridor, seeming to shrink as he moves—a scene that will be repeated later, at another key point.

Alexander Payne, Downsizing, 2017, color, sound, 135 minutes.

What follows from here is a clinical ceremony that ends with tiny humans being gently scooped up with spatulas, only the beginning of Paul’s diminishment and degradation: The capper involves the arrival of a keepsake box containing giant wedding rings celebrating a sundered union. After Audrey backs out of the downsizing pact, divorce dashes Paul’s dreams of living big while small, and, adrift in a new world, he is sucked into the orbit of his neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a Serbian sybarite who’s had himself shrunk so that he can supply the burgeoning population of little folk with illegal comestibles, holding a nonstop erotic cabaret in the penthouse upstairs with his partner in crime, the pint-sized piratical sea captain Joris Konrad, played by Udo Kier. The two make up an irresistible Eurotrash double-act.

Even in Leisureland, however, somebody has to clean up after the party’s over. This is how Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a woman making her cleaning service rounds on a painful, junky prosthetic leg. Paul recognizes Ngoc Lan from the television news—she is one of those miniaturized dissidents, injured as the lone stowaway survivor of a trip from Vietnam to a Eugene, Oregon, Target in an imported television’s cardboard packaging, a traumatic experience she refers to as “the TV box.” Well-meaning Paul guiltily offers her his assistance, and this curt, practical woman sees in this soft, accommodating boob a resource to be exploited, dragging him by the nose into to a world that he’s only known through the TV box, the squalid, stifling slums outside the walls of Leisureland where the service workers live, the sick and invalid among them tended to in no-nonsense fashion by Ngoc Lan, who is also a zealous Christian with an uncomplaining, almost second-nature sense of duty.

Chau has had a number of television credits and drew praise for her work on stage in Annie Baker’s John, but she is perhaps best known to filmgoers as Jade in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014). The US-raised daughter of Vietnamese boat people, Chau here affects the accent of her parents—with unerring accuracy. In any just world, this tough, tensile, multifaceted performance would be the part that catapults Chau to stardom, but already there have been rumblings of disquietude about her broken English, that very contemporary squeamishness that labels anything creating the slightest discomfiture as “problematic.” (Chau has, in interviews, addressed this insipidity with more grace and authority than I could summon.) It’s a crying shame, because she has given one of the most human and wholly invested performances in recent American movies, by turns comic and somber, hard-edged and meltingly vulnerable, as when seen in tearful confession or in the first heavy breath of the most tender and true romantic interlude I expect to see at the multiplex this decade.

Downsizing is largely a movie of immigrants—Ngoc Lan, Dusan, and Joris—and this is unusual for Payne, though the immigrant and migrant experience color his view of Americana as much as they did that of, say, Elia Kazan. Payne is not so very far removed from it. In fact, the child of Greek-descended restaurateurs—the family name was anglicized from Papadopoulos—and the family business might explain why he is responsible for some of the finest crap-restaurant establishing shots in cinema. (There’s a doozy in Downsizing, of a certain La Casa Pizzeria.) Even all-American white bread Paul, with the surname Safranek, is marked as the descendent of the Czech Bohemian immigrants who flooded the Nebraska prairie in the nineteenth century, a mass movement most famously reflected in fiction by the title character in Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia. As with the plain, often awkward speech of Cather’s Ántonia, Ngoc Lan’s imperfect mastery of her adopted language enriches rather than impoverishes the tongue: Ántonia’s exclamation, “Ain’t it wonderful, Jim, how much people can mean to each other?” is touching and eloquent in its clunkiness, and there is something of the same spirit in Ngoc Lan’s point-blank proposition to Paul, “What kind of fuck you give me?”

The development of the Ngoc Lan character by Payne, Taylor, and Chau might be seen as an extension of Payne’s 14e Arronsidement, the shining highlight of the otherwise unremarkable 2006 omnibus film Paris, je t’aime, which follows Margo Martindale—seen in a cameo in Downsizing—as a plus-size American tourist in Paris, narrating her holiday in an interior monologue of slow, graceless Midwestern-accented French. It’s a film that distills Payne’s risky compulsion to make films that force an audience to confront their prejudices and preconceptions—in both instances, accent-based—as he does his own, a prickly process of moving past the general to the specific that leaves him exposed to charges of condescension along the way. At a moment that celebrates unimpeachably “nice” filmmakers, Payne continues to be less concerned with trumpeting his virtues than with pressing viewers to question their own.

In most films, Paul would have to pick a side between the poles defined by Dusan and Joris on one hand and Ngoc Lan on the other, between pleasure and principle—but Payne is not most filmmakers, thank God. Instead he brings the entire quartet together to move from Leisureland to the fjords of Norway and the original downsizing commune, where preparations are now underway to move underground in anticipation of an extinction-level event, a final retreat that Paul is invited to join in the name of greater good. This turn might, along with the movie as a whole, be taken as a satire of eco-panic and our fretting over carbon footprints, but there’s less than nothing here to mark Payne and Taylor as climate-change deniers. Downsizing is, rather, addressing itself to a culture of buying dispensation through lifestyle, through conscientious consumer choices, while keeping suffering abstract, at the comfortable distance of that TV box. Pleasure and principle, rather than playing foils, are as one. They are two forms of affirmation, holding ground rather than running away and going down under the ground ’cause death’s coming ’round. The film’s climax finds Paul again at a crossroads—or, rather, facing another long corridor. I won’t reveal what happens from here, but will only say that Payne and his collaborators have not shrunk from any challenge.

Downsizing opens in select theaters on Friday, December 22nd.