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--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 ten 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 going though momentum starts to build: Paul Safranek (Damon) is brought to believe that 'getting small' will be the answer to all his problems. The arguments are compelling: a set of diamond bracelet necklace and earrings that can cost thousands when downsized is just eighty dollars--which, as a cheerful Neil Patrick Harris points out to a freshly-scrubbed Laura Dern, is half their monthly grocery bill. Little 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 involuntaryl 'pfft!' from the lips. By story's end that gesture will seem less like a cynical jab than a defensive reflex, a way to deflect skepticism away from the film's optimistic/fatalistic core.
Only things don't go so great for Paul--and here's the clever part: Payne lands him divorced depressed financially diminished in Leisureland, the community to live in for little folk. He's not enjoying the high life but he's comfortable--even with only half (or less than half if what the divorce lawyer implied 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's 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: that folks are as superconscious of status symbols as ever (cue Brett Easton Ellis), that on the edge of this utopian minicommunity lies a ghetto full of marginalized folk, 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 or move in with the squatters outside or join the Norwegian scientists up north prepping to survive the end of the world?--but so arguably was Swift's novel. Each town Gulliver visited was an argument (What if we were giants in a land of Lilliputians?) pushed far as it can go, then transposed to another town and flipped (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 level of acridity Swift did with the Yahoos, shit-eating beasts with an uncomfortable likeness to humans, and I suppose it's partly due to his temperament as a writer--he deals mainly with the middle class, from lower to 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 concept (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 with it a little, content to explore odd little nooks and crannies of his idea 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 either 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 Hou Chou's Ngoc Lan Tran--the Vietnamese refugee who pulls Paul into a world of unending need and constant sacrifice--I submit Payne did better than fumble. Critics took Payne to task for letting her character speak pidgin or worse making her heavy accent 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--being? I thought Hou's performance refreshingly no-nonsense and unsentimental; it took her a while and considerable struggle to admit to Paul what she really feels, why she is driven to do what she does, and only then because at that point Paul had gone through a similar experience. She's both sensibly practical and admirably 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 similarly inclined) was best for us in particular, as opposed to the species as a whole. The human race will be fine, Payne seems to assure us--the scientists will make sure of that; best we can do for ourselves is look after the folks immediately before us who need our help. Candide said something similar once, and in the face of everything he and the characters in the film have gone through--in the face of everything we've gone (and are still going) through--it's hard to argue that Candide (or for that matter Paul) is wrong.
First published in Businessworld 1.26.18