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Hong Chau and Matt Damon in scene from Downsizing.

Movie Review
Directed by Alexander Payne

By Noel Vera

ALEXANDER PAYNE’S new film Downsizing is a slyer comic take on Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels than the Jack Black travesty some seven years back — it is perhaps the best adaptation of this classic fantasy satire to date.

Not that Payne’s film (unlike Swift’s novel) is a near-perfect work — hardly that. It spends (I’d say wastes) the first 10 minutes sketching how the process of “downsizing” was developed and applied; has an earnestness about it (as opposed to Swift’s cosmic rage) that may grate on the more tonally sensitive; and has Matt Damon — Private Ryan himself — sucking all the energy out of the center of the screen.

Once the film gets to the nitty gritty though momentum starts to build: Paul Safranek (Damon) is brought to believe that downsizing himself will be the answer to all his problems. The arguments are compelling: a set of diamond bracelet, necklace, and earrings that can set a wallet back thousands costs just $80 — which, as a cheerful Neil Patrick Harris points out to a freshly scrubbed Laura Dern, is half their monthly grocery bill. Smaller folks (five inches tall we’re told) mean less resources used, less land consumed, smaller carbon footprint, an overall lighter impact on the environment — it’s all about “saving the world,” which, when spoken to anyone with a straight face, provokes an involuntary small “pfft!” from the lips.

Only things don’t go so great for Paul — and here’s the clever part: Payne lands him divorced, depressed, and financially diminished in Leisureland, the community to be in for downsized folk. He’s not living the high life but he’s comfortable — even with only half (or less than half of what the lawyer implied in their conversation together is right) his current assets full-sized, he can still afford a nice if modest apartment and so-so job as a Land’s End telemarketer downsized. Life is, well, quiet; Paul’s even dating a single mother. Everything is fine, if only his upstairs neighbor’s parties weren’t so damned noisy.

Paul’s predicament is basically Payne’s way of drawing his audience sideways, towards the film’s real subject: miniaturization as a metaphor for full-sized America. Turns out everything is different and nothing has changed: folks are super conscious of the status symbols they own or buy (cue Brett Easton Ellis), that on the edge of this utopian mini community lies a ghetto full of marginalized folk, and that there are pockets of methane (a superpotent greenhouse gas, even more powerful than carbon dioxide) being released by melting polar ice, threatening to take it all away.

It’s schematic, yes — do we stay with the Leisureland folk, move out to the slum folk outside, or join the Norwegian scientists? — but so arguably was Swift’s novel. Each land Gulliver visited was a chance to take an argument (What if we were giants in a land of Lilliputians?) and push it far as it can go, then move elsewhere and flip the argument (What if we were tiny visitors to a land of Brobdingnagians?). Payne takes a similar approach but tends to pull his satiric punches, or at least queer their trajectory and impact. He doesn’t quite achieve the same acrid portrait Swift did with the Yahoos, shit-eating beasts with an uncomfortable resemblance towards us humans, and I suppose it’s partly due to his temperament as a writer — he deals mainly with the middle class, both lower and upper reaches, preferring to avoid extremes of poverty and prosperity both, and leaving us with interesting debating points rather than memorable imagery. If he resembles anyone it’s the (now much-maligned) filmmaker Woody Allen back when he was being metaphysical, doing his arguably best work (The Purple Rose of Cairo, Zelig).

Allen in those films would begin on an interesting premise (a human blank slate glimpsed here and there in the margins of history; a movie character stepping out of the screen to meet the flesh-and-blood love of his life) and kind of fumble it a little, content to explore odd little nooks and crannies of his concept rather than running with it. Payne does something similar and, while painful to watch (Why doesn’t Paul stop second-guessing himself and act?) the fumbling — which I’m guessing is what the filmmaker had in mind all a long — is a supremely human habit, something any and perhaps all of us would recognize and admit to doing at one point or another in our lives, no matter how trivial or urgent the occasion.

In the case of Hong Chau’s Ngoc Lan Tran — the Vietnamese refugee who pulls Paul into a world of need and self-sacrifice — I submit Payne did better than fumble. Critics took Payne to task for letting her character speak pidgin English, for in fact making her heavily accented English the source of much of the film’s comedy, but 1.) Was she as a Vietnamese refugee expected to speak perfect English? 2.) Was she as a Vietnamese actress expected to act and speak like a perfect — and perfectly inhuman — character? I thought Hong’s performance refreshingly no-nonsense and unsentimental; it took her a while to tell Paul what she really feels, why she is driven to do what she does, and was only able to because at that point Paul had gone through the same experience himself. She’s eminently practical for someone so idealistic, and I like the contrast. As for that finale (skip this paragraph if you plan to see the film!) no not the smart move — overall I suspect the scientists are right and Paul has screwed up yet again — but it’s a move we might feel (if we were in that situation) was best for us in particular, as opposed to the species as a whole. The species will be fine, Payne seems to assure us (the scientists will make sure of that); the best we can do is look after the folks immediately in front of us who need our help. Candide said something similar once, and in the face of everything they’ve gone through — in the face of everything we’ve gone through — it’s hard to argue that Candide (or Paul) is wrong.

MTRCB Rating: R-13