“Downsizing” is a fanciful failure, a flub filled with good intentions. Still, there’s an admittedly bit of perverse pleasure in watching a great goose lay a rotten egg.
In 1726 Jonathan Swift transported us to the isle of Lilliput and introduced us to the miniature humans known as Lilliputians. Gulliver, a giant among small people, was welcomed warmly at first, but eventually he was tried for treason – and barely escaped with his life.
Less well known is part II of Gulliver’s Travels in Brobdingnag when the tables are turned. Gulliver finds himself a dwarf amidst giants. He now gets to experience the trauma of being a little person who has no power in a land of big people.
“Gulliver’s Travels” was a biting satire of England, and was popular both for its sizzling political barbs as well as for its fanciful portrayal of lands where size shapes the culture. English kids and their parents could howl in delight for entirely different reasons – whether to see royalty cut down to size or just to cheer as little people take control of the world.
Now in 2017, nearly three centuries later, director Alexander Payne draws inspiration from Swift to craft a new social satire, again based on a journey into a land of small people.
Payne seemed a good choice to take such a high-stakes risk. He’s made a series of one-of-a-kind films, each captivating in its own way: “Sideways,” “The Descendants,” “Nebraska” and “Election” all were insightful commentaries on everything from bro-culture to mean girls.
Movie buffs had reason to be hopeful to see Payne dare to craft a green concept film – a cautionary fable about an approaching environmental apocalypse. If anyone could pull this off, perhaps Payne could.
Well, no, he couldn’t. “Downsizing,” while sprinkled with moments of brilliance, conspicuously deserves all the downsized reviews it’s receiving.
The variation on Gulliver begins with the discovery of a technique for shrinking humans from six-feet to six inches, give or take. They are precisely the same, just smaller.
Now needing fewer resources to live, the small people can live in tiny communities which look like dollhouses full of tiny people. A couple with $100,000 in wealth sees their assets multiply into millions when spent in a small community where everything costs less.
And so, humans buy tickets to tiny communities, knowing they can never be big again, but attracted by a chance to get their piece of the American Dream by increasing their assets by decreasing their size.
Matt Damon plays Paul, financially frustrated, decides to say goodbye to his big friends and join a little community.
Paul and his wife Audrey go through the transition process, which is depicted in meticulous Kubrickian detail: their bodies are shaved, their fillings removed. They are warned of side effects, including death, as their bodies shrink.
Undeterred, they walk down the hallway and lie down on their gurneys. Soon their bodies become small while their bank account becomes big.
At first, it’s utopia, as advertised. Instant transformation from middle class to upper class! What a country!
But then Paul realizes the rich dwarfs have small servants who live in poverty. Class distinctions are alive and well in this little world.
Paul befriends his Vietnamese house cleaner, whom he recognizes as a brave refugee and activist who escaped hard times and received nationwide publicity. “What is she doing here?” he wonders.
From here, the film descends into a sermon on a dying planet and the urgency to save ourselves. News reports from the land of big people tell of polar gases, which are killing off civilization.
The little people have found an answer: they have created biospheres underground where they can live, even while the human world dies off.
Paul is thrilled to have found an answer to global warming: live in a secret world with the modern-day Lilliputians, somewhere under Norway.
The environmental metaphor is heavy-handed and drains the life out of a promising premise. What’s more the portrayal of the Vietnamese activist borders on condescension. Her broken English is played for laughs. Her intelligence makes her bumbled English even more grating – immigrants quickly assimilate. Sure, they have accents, but they speak in full sentences.
The message in the end is: Love the poor, even if it means giving up your wealth. Sure, fine. We know that.
But “Downsizing” delivers that worthwhile message with such clumsy racially insensitive brush strokes as to dilute and trivialize its power.
Part I of this daring film seemed headed upstairs, for the heavens.
But by the time we’re done, we’ve landed downstairs, at the other end of Dante’s kingdom.
A visionary concept was, indeed, downsized.