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Downsizing: Alexander Payne’s Lilliputian dystopia

It may be misleading, but certainly tempting, to attribute American filmmaker Alexander Payne’s extraordinary sensitivity for drama to his Greek origins (his ancestors anglicized the last name from Papadopoulos). Whatever his motivations, in Downsizing, that premiered at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, the director of Sideways and About Schmidt has refined his dark humor to such a degree that it would be misnomer to call his film a satire, and too narrow a definition, too.
For Payne’s filmography encompasses all the classical types of drama, the arc that goes from comedy to tragedy, seen through the lens —sometimes unbearably too pristine— of irony. He also incurs in the genre of science fiction, albeit slightly, without letting futurism interfere with the story, as the director would later explain in a press conference. His is a genre of its own, so rich in its Shakespearean ambiguity, that no attempt at definition would do it justice.
In Downsizing, Paul Safranek, superbly played by Matt Damon, is an Omaha occupational therapist who decides to undergo a downsizing procedure, by which men are reduced to Lilliputian dimensions. The technology was devised at Norwegian research center that has concluded that the only remedy to the ills men have inflicted on the environment —abusive exploitation of natural resources, overpopulation— is shrinking men to the size of a thumb.
The humorous twists are too many to delve in. The Norwegian researchers make their surprise announcement at a conference in Istanbul, the quintessential example of urban sprawl and overcrowding. The setting is autobiographical, too: Omaha is Payne’s hometown. At the end of the farewell gathering in a local pub after Safranek and his wife have decided to downsize, a barman takes it on them. But not for a choice that goes against their very essence, but for money: the downsized people pay a fraction on the dollar in taxes. The sarcasm may be lost on many an American who may be used to a system in which most considerations are measured against the sole benchmark of money.
And that goes to the gist of the theme. People downsize because the trade-off is raising their standard of living. Your wealth grows tenfold if you go into the miniature world of Leisureland (is the faint echo of Lilliput casual?).
But this is more than a song of angst to the souls toiling in American suburbia. What matters the most about the movie is the poignancy of the characters’ lives. These are the struggles most of us will relate to: the hardships we endure to make ends meet; how the grind of daily life slowly may erode love, friendships and the hope of a better future, for which we keep plodding forward through it all. In the spoonful of this drama, some will taste the honey, and some others the poison.
In the end, people will read into this movie what they invest in life. If they have an eye for the tragic, they will feel for the Vietnamese environmental activist who was downsized against her will in prison, played by Hong Chau, the true heroine. But that should not stop us from laughing when she goes on to describe the eight types of “f*!k” Americans presumably practice in bed: “love f*!k”, “hate f*!k”, “last f*!k”, and other types. Still, curb your enthusiasm. At the press conference following the screening of the movie, Damon said Downsizing was Payton’s most optimistic movie. A journalist took issue with that: it was truly dystopian, she said. People who were poor when they were normal size still are poor in their reduced selves: there is downsized Latino community that lives in a real-size prefabricated house turned into a seven-floor slum that looks poignantly like an American inner city. As Dušan, a Serbian character in the movie, says, the middle class people became rich when they are downsized. “The poor stay poor: they just get small.” Even this character, so fabulously developed, shows Payne’s genius. Anyone who is familiar with the peculiarly pugnacious Serbian sense of humor will recognize in Dušan a quintessential expression of it.
At the press conference, Payne obstinately remained ambiguous, refraining from elaborating on interpretations of his movie. He leaves that to the audience. In response to a question, Payne recognized a fondness for Chekhov, “never losing humor, but going deeper and deeper.” In Leisureland Estates, the city for the downsized, the bus going from the ritzy part of town to the slum goes through a water drain, a long tunnel. In the movie, Damon looks ahead concerned, at the light at the end of it. Like Payne’s other movies, Downsizing, too offers a light at the end of the tunnel. But in this film, the tunnel is very long and dark, and that light is dimming.