Rob Edelman: Downsizing

Dec 4, 2017

A new Alexander Payne film is, for me, always something to anticipate. These days, few filmmakers combine artistry and concepts in ways that are special. Alexander Payne is one of them, and his latest work is titled DOWNSIZING. It momentarily will arrive in theaters and, despite its few faults, it is well-worth seeing and pondering.

DOWNSIZING opens with the reporting of a scientific breakthrough. A Norwegian research scientist has concocted a process, described as “cellular miniaturization,” in which all organic matter may be reduced in size without any side effects. These include human beings, who can shrink down to five full inches. Individuals have been partaking in this experimentation, and the end result is the establishment of the world’s first self-sustaining community of small people. It is called Leisureland, and it is promised that those who choose to downsize themselves and reside in Leisureland will “start the path to happiness.”

As time passes, the idea of “getting small” is accepted by the masses. And those who decide to shrink  themselves are Paul and Audrey, played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig: a married couple who are drowning in bill-paying and other everyday struggles. Will their lives improve if they choose to “go small”? For after all, the promise is that, if they “downsize,” they will eat less, and spend less, and so on. Does this sound appealing? You bet!

So Paul and Audrey agree to “downsize” themselves, but what is the catch here? There has to be a catch... Are all “downsized” individuals endlessly blissful, or can some become disenchanted? Even more to the point, will the “downsizing” process invariably become corrupted? These questions deal specifically with the film’s plotline, but DOWNSIZING transcends the specifics of its story as it deals with larger issues. And questions arise here. Basic questions. They only begin with: Is there hope for humankind? What role might scientific advances play, or not play, in the future? Is science a panacea, an automatic problem-solver, or will difficulties still exist, only in different forms?

What is more important, technology and “progress” or human connection, human feeling? And also, what is the true essence of living? How important is it to keep living, keep going, keep trying, in order to transcend the chaos that seems to be enveloping our world? According to Alexander Payne, the answer here is simple. It is choosing to be with the person you love. The essence of this is the image of two people holding hands in a peaceful, naturalistic setting.

Cinematically-speaking, DOWNSIZING does have its flaws. For me, the film really bogs down upon the introduction of an overly effusive Vietnamese woman who is a refugee and political dissident. But still, like other Alexander Payne films, DOWNSIZING exudes a genuine humanism. In this regard, I only wish that more films were like it. 

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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