The challenge for Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is obvious: Its people are small, but its themes are very big. And whether those are too large, and manifold, for a pop culture that likes to gnaw on its issues in digestible lumps—racial injustice, political hatred, income inequality, climate collapse, each in its turn—has yet to be seen.
Set for commercial release by Paramount Pictures on Dec. 22, Payne’s fable about an Everyman, played by Matt Damon, who decides to escape the pressures of modern life by shrinking, has been picked on by critics since it played the Venice film festival in August. On the Rotten Tomatoes website, the film’s composite score has been stuck at a mediocre 65 percent. Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com set a tone for the early naysayers with a Rotten Tomatoes pull quote that says: “Throughout Downsizing, I kept asking myself what the point of all this was, never engaged by its hodgepodge of themes.”
Yet the traditionally tough audience at a recent Writers Guild of America screening appeared to be almost completely engaged. Viewers laughed aloud at the funny stuff (particularly when Hong Chau, as a relentless Vietnamese activist, kept reminding Damon that he was “stupid”); and they watched the serious moments, as when Damon wrestles with his posture toward the world’s possible end, with considerable attention. In fact, the film played a bit like the past Oscar-winner Argo: Just goofy enough to make you keep thinking.
To date, Paramount has wobbled in its approach to the movie. From an early trailer, you’d think Downsizing was a sequel to Honey, I Shrunk The Kids. One of its big beats was an over-sized vodka bottle dribbling joy on those little people. In a second trailer released earlier this month, the Absolut was still there (though, honestly, I can’t recall it in the actual movie). But so were hints of a darkness that evaded that earlier promo. “I finally have a chance to do something that matters,” says Damon, amid images of a miniature ghetto and faint whispers of apocalypse.
With due respect to those first-wave critics, Downsizing does indeed have a point. Its underlying message is perhaps closer to that of Voltaire’s Candide than to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (widely referenced in the reviews). In a universe that is too large for any of us, we must learn to fix what little we can—as Voltaire put it, to ‘cultivate our gardens.’
That philosophical core, plus those laughs at the guild, probably put the prospects for Downsizing at something more than a 65 percent Tomatometer score would seem to promise.