'Downsizing' Review: Matt Damon Shrinks Himself In Alexander Payne's Sci-Fi Satire [TIFF]

Alexander Payne built a reputation as one of the sharpest wits and most brutal ironists in independent cinema, even to the point where the internet conversation around his last film even encompassed the question of whether he was mean to his characters – as if they were people. For his biggest, most expensive undertaking, he tries on something a little different: sincerity. That sensibility reared its head periodically in The Descendants and Nebraska, but it never reaches the default level the way it does in Downsizing.

His latest script with frequent writing partner Jim Taylor uses the instrument of satire to probe a lingering disaster first identified by 18th century British economist Thomas Malthus: overpopulation. Malthus predicted an increasing decline in society's standard of living due to the scarcity of resources available on earth. Downsizing begins with two scientists announcing a remedy they believe can cure the problem in a presentation called "Human Scale and Sustainability." Over the course of 200-300 years, they will transition humans to a vastly shrunken size, reducing their waste by decreasing their size thousands fold.

From there, the film fast forwards to a decade down the line when their radical idea catches the tiniest of footholds. Downsizing sounds appealing to Paul Safranek, a protagonist cut in the mold of a Frank Capra hero. It helps that he's played by Matt Damon, who brings a dignity to the character recalling Jimmy Stewart. Paul is a classic Middle American paradigm of basic decency: an occupational therapist committed to helping relieve the aches of Omaha Steaks' workers, he's the kind of guy who considers caring for his ailing mother and pleasing his listless wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) the highest honor.

After conversations with two shrunken high school classmates at their reunion, Paul and Audrey decide to make the big leap to downsize. They attend a sales pitch at Leisureland, a model community promoting itself as a middle-class utopia. Since dollars go further on a smaller scale, the average American worker can translate a modest savings account into enough money for a McMansion and nonstop leisure time. While downsizing came about as a solution to global and environmental issues, the decision quickly shifts to one existing at an odd nexus of selfishness and selflessness.

Payne and Taylor explore their high concept fully, from the practical concerns (how teeth work) to the political considerations (who will provide service work) even down to the way "short" becomes a microaggression. What they never quite figure out, however, is where to take the big idea. The duo has no clue what kind of drama to stage in the world they envision, although they have mercy on audiences by sparing them another dissolution into dystopia. Exploring the nuances of their creation makes for an hour of good cinema, particularly when probing the way Leisureland functions as an anesthetized consumerist paradise without going full Stepford Wives.

The film expands its frame with the introduction of Hong Chau's Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan, an activist who gets shrunk not as liberation but rather as a form of government oppression. She works as a cleaner in Paul's building and eventually introduces him to a world beyond the Leisureland walls, one where a group of working-class downsized individuals still live in relative squalor. Ngoc forces Paul to confront his notions about where his efforts to help humanity are best suited, a worthy question to consider – but one that also feels better suited for a different film.

No matter the narrative hiccups, the issues raised are fascinating to ponder because Payne and Taylor take the time to consider them fully. The capacity to shrink humans for population control is a far-fetched sci-fi concept, but the stretching of our planet beyond its capabilities has already begun. Downsizing dares to ask if humans will be ready to make the sacrifices necessary for the survival and preservation of the species is on the line. Payne and Taylor can pose the question without inducing complete debilitation because it's one they ask with genuine concern and empathy for their fellow earthlings.

/Film rating: 7 out of 10