Honey, I Shrank the Expectations of Small-Minded People
Alexander Payne's new film, Downsizing, has been getting a lot of promotion, which is good...but bad. You look at aggregate scores of reviews and they're pretty low. A casual glance at comment section critiques (the unprofessional kind) reveals a lot of bitching about it not being a Disney-like film with hilarious hi-jinx, ala Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. You would think that its "R" rating by the MPAA might communicate something to these adults with children in tow, but evidently not. One is forced to conclude that the clueless don't even know what to do when given an obvious clue. Any deeper message that the film might be trying to say would be lost on such a creature, anyway, given a warning of a single letter...how much spelling out does it have to take?
But, let's say it and in Bold Type: Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
So...other than the fact it isn't Disney, how was it? Short answer: good.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon)—pronounced Sa-FRA-nek—is an occupational therapist for a meat-packing plant—he had a plan to be a doctor, but his duties as a caretaker for his mother with fibromyalgia put those plans on hold. At the time, we first meet him, something has happened that "is bigger than the moon landing"—a Norwegian team research, led by Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgård), has developed a process that shrinks human beings to a size of 5 inches. The purpose is to slow down the rate of resources that human beings use (and waste produced) in the hopes they'll be able to stave off the effects of global warming and maybe save the planet. Asbjornsen has undergone the technique himself and his presentation is capped with the introduction of 36 other individuals, including two children who were born small. It is seen as no small triumph.
It is ten years later, and Paul is now married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and they're having difficulties making ends meet. Audrey wants a bigger house, but Paul can't manage the financing for the size of place she wants. At a high school reunion, Paul runs into Dave and Carol Johnson (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), who have big news—they've undergone the treatment and are now small. After the reunion, Paul and Jason have a chance to catch up, and Dave reveals that he and his wife now live in a community of small people—"Leisureland." For them, there is no down-side to downsizing and Paul and Audrey travel to see a presentation of the advantages of living large by being small.
And, of course, if you're going to have a presentation, it has to be delivered by Neil Patrick Harris:
For consumers, that last part is no small matter. The amount of capital generated from their equity will turn anyone middle-class into millionaires with a desired lifestyle that full-size cannot entail. You can live like kings, albeit very small kings, with a reduced budget and life savings that might actually last a lifetime. Paul and Audrey make their plans to undergo the treatment...selling their worldly possessions, reducing their baggage. The only thing left for them to do is to take off their wedding rings and put them in a "Keepsakes" box, which will delivered to them in "Leisureland."
|Leisureland—the epitome of small town life|
They start to cut ties with Audrey's parents; her Mom is against the idea and won't even see her off, but her father grudgingly accepts her decision. But, they start to hear rumblings of dissent...and prejudice. It seems that enough people have reduced their assets that it is actually starting to affect the U.S. economy—the GNP has taken a traceable hit. And full-sized people still can display small-mindednesss; the local bartender grumbles that he doesn't think it's fair that just because people have shrunk doesn't mean they shouldn't pay their full share of taxes—hey, buddy, property taxes are reduced when a plot of land is reduced. But, for those still "living large," taxes are going up as compensation for the reduction of taxes of the new minority.
It's time to downsize. Paul and Audrey go to Leisureland and go through the final legalities—they understand that it is still a risky procedure with a 1 in 225,000 chance of injury, disability or death. And the process is irreversible. They both agree. Paul is taken first—no one with a prosthetic can go through downsizing and his head and eyebrows are shaved off, he's put under anesthetic and all of his body hair is removed and his teeth extracted—if they aren't his head will explode. It's run a bit like a mill, with a few dozen subject reduced simultaneously, all set to a benignly light-hearted waltz (Rolfe Kent did the music).
The subjects are then transferred from the large facility; they are carefully removed from their full-sized gurneys—with a spatula, no less—and transferred to the indentured staff who endenture the patients with new choppers and wait for the anesthetic to wear off.
But, no amount of time can get you used to lowered expectations. Audrey, it seems, has chickened out. She is full-sized, head-shaved, with one eyebrow, calling from the airport saying that she's sorry, she's sorry, but she couldn't do it. Well, that's mighty big of her, but Paul is 10 cm's high and it's the kind of discrepancy no couples therapy is going to fix. Paul moves into his big house alone, but it isn't long before he's downsizing himself, moving into a condo and trying to start a relationship with a single mother with less of a heighth discrepancy. Paul is dissatisfied, working at a call center for Lands End, where he's just a bit bitter and brittle ("Well, you don't have to be so short with me," says a customer. "What did you call me?" he unprofessionally barks back).
Where things go from there gets complicated, because Leisureland is complicated, as well. So, is this new technology. Not technologically; everything is fine as long as you don't have an artificial heart, or a stint, or pins in your leg, or something like that. But, anything that can be made for good, can be misapplied, as well. As the technology becomes more commonplace and is exported throughout the world, some troubling aspects come up. For instance, on TV, Paul hears about how the government of Vietnam is using the technology to shrink dissidents and that 17 of them were shipped to the U.S. in a television packing box—only one of them survived and she was severely injured, necessitating amputating one of her legs below the knee.
Even locally, there is disparity among the lilliputian Leisurelanders: Paul has the opportunity to meet his upstairs neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), given to loud, debauched parties, and, after waking up in his apartment the worse for wear, sees that Dusan has his apartment cleaned by staff-workers, one of whom is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), the very same Vietnamese activist who survived the traumatic smuggling to the U.S. After trying to attempt to help her with her uncomfortable prosthetic, Ngoc insists he follow her to her housing project to attend to a sick friend on her floor—ignoring the fact that he's not a doctor, just a therapist.
What Paul finds there is how the other half-footers live: Ngoc lives in one of a few trailers that have been converted into multi-level apartment buildings, projects basically, and it is there that the maids, domestics, nannies, orderlies, (and probably teachers) live, all crammed into tiny hovels made of scrap plywood. For them, there is no "Leisureland" merely a continuation of the hard-scrabble life and grind, the "getting-by" no matter what size you are. And before you can say "Can I help?" Paul is enlisted in the day rounds Ngoc makes as a tender of the community.
This is far from a Disney movie. There is no jocularity going on here, so I can see why the mis-informed might be disappointed. But, they're looking at it the wrong way...or let's be charitable, they were convinced to look at the film the wrong way. For them, this movie is a glass half-empty, rather than a glass half-full. The tact to take (and one I try to subscribe to) is more along the lines of what Ngoc might think: "Oh, look! I have a GLASS!" It's what you do with that glass, that opportunity, that is the point.
At one point, Paul, Ngoc, Dusan and Dusan's friend Konrad (Heavens to Warhol, it's Udo Kier!) make a pilgrimage to Norway to visit with the original high-minded small person Dr. Asbjornsen, who, having heard of Ngoc's fate and invited her there. Asbornsen has kept his community together in a sort of commune of like-minded individuals, but he is depressed, not because he is Norwegian, but that his grand experiment has not yielded the better world, the cleaner planet that he has envisaged, and, fearing that humanity will soon be wiped out by increasing methane deposits held by melting icebergs, he plans now to take his group to a secure vault that will be sealed against the coming disaster and maybe save a small sample of humanity. And Paul...wants to be a part of that.
Payne (and his regular screenwriter Jim Taylor) have been craftily planting this little conflict for the entire length of the movie. It's the conflict between selfishness and charity—whether you're going to follow Ayn Rand or Mother Theresa. It might not "play" to America because the entire fiber of our country is based on acquisition and grandiosity, of producing more and faster to attain a level of comfort, let alone stability, that the process seems to want to negate...or kill us...before it can be attained. How can we aspire to leisure if we're all working so damn hard for it? Call it the American Dream, but it's more of the American Fantasy. And it's victims can be found in the grousing bartender kvetching about his taxes or the idealist for whom nothing is quite satisfactory enough. It seems to fly in the face of the pooled resources intended for a democracy when everybody is looking out for themselves. But, when nobody, left or right, has their heart in the right place, where do you put it?
It's a matter of give and take, and deciding which side of the fence—green or not so green—that you're most comfortable with. There's a lot of bosh going around that Damon's character is a white savior...of what? He's just helping, like he has all his life, no matter what career-field he picks, and it's part and parcel of his not wanting to feel helpless. I've also heard criticism of Hong Chau's playing of her character—too brittle, too difficult to understand (well, maybe Margaret Cho would get more laughs playing it...). And then, there's the Disney-crowd.
Personally, I like the choices that were made, and I would suggest that the spirit of the movie should be embraced—don't look at it for what it isn't (and you think it should be—I mean what are you, a Star Wars fan?), look at it for what it is.
And be grateful for small favors.