Downsizing is a dystopic satire on American values that has an unsurprising and credible core involving a sick and impoverished underclass. It is credible because the USA is alone among the advanced industrial nations in failing to provide universal health care, preferring, as the statistics clearly show, the most expensive and least efficient option. The film’s solution to this is the action of the good Samaritan. Why this rings true for many Americans is, I would argue, the result of an incessant cultural reinforcement of the idea of any practical change being regarding as socialist and contrary to the idea of (American) individualism. Those kooky Europeans and their social experiments! Communes. Bongo drums and cheesecloth shirts.
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Downsizing is a huge surprise of a movie that takes us places the American mainstream media do not often care to go.
It is a witty and provocative examination of the American dream writ small, the hope of a Hollywood lifestyle at Bollywood prices. In this sci-fi world, the process of miniaturizing people is created in order to extend the world’s resources. This inspiring ideology is converted into a capitalist venture on US soil that promises the struggling middle classes the opportunity to extend their dollar buying power. Regular folk with moderate means can live in a mansion and spend their days taking tennis lessons and treat themselves to leisurely lunches and affordable diamond jewelry. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) is the unfulfilled physiotherapist who attempts to begin this life of effortless consumerism with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). When she bails after he alone has been miniaturized, his economic situation becomes insufficient to maintain the “dream,” and he begins a downward social spiral. It turns out that even in suburban paradise (Leisureland, New Mexico), someone needs to clean the toilets.
Downsizing also displays, in essence, certain debilitating constructs shared by many socially conscious Americans that help to explain why the Democratic party and its supporters are so weak and vulnerable in the face of the reactionary politics of the Republican party. Why is there no national health care in the USA? Why do so few believe it possible to change the inequities of American society (or that there are such things)? The answers lie in the “liberal” story of Paul Safranek’s path to personal enlightenment.
Three superb lead performances by Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, and Hong Chou provide a stable base to a thoughtfully nuanced script by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. There is a depth to the writing that reflects the maturation of ideas over several years. I wonder if Taylor and Payne are familiar with Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick, which involves a plot device whereby the Chinese make themselves much smaller in an effort to extend resources.1 This isn’t an accusation of plagiarism as Downsizing doesn’t present such a glib skeleton of an idea but provides us with a doctoral thesis. And full disclosure here. I did a small spin on it myself in a short story a few years back: “Thomas Malthus and the Beanstalk.” This only gives me greater respect for the development of the concept in Downsizing. The writers fret about the logistics of making living tissue smaller and have their subjects undergo elaborate preparations including having all their teeth extracted and bodily hair shaved while synthetic body parts can make you “ineligible” (avoiding mention of the insurmountable problem of the human skeleton). Socially aware Norway is cited as the environmentally friendly source of the original experiments and provides an appropriate geopolitical location for the idealism of the concept. Measures and quantities are given, medical insurance and federal tax credit are remarked on, actual prices and valuations are recited: and we should note these details because timid cinematic worlds rarely risk even the mention of the cost of a cup of coffee. Between the charming retro-modern designs and cheap haircuts, there is the palpable feel of a world debated and argued over at great length by accomplished creators and writers. Sure, we can challenge the specifics in several instances – and ultimately this is science fantasy looking to tell a meaningful story, not science fiction looking to build a real robot – but give those guys some credit for their efforts to make the pill smoother.
Paul, played by Matt Damon, is a dull and humble everyman. Damon portrays him with a sensitive physicality, as a slow, pudgy, and ever-so-slightly stooped figure, seemingly puzzled at the avarice or dishonesty of others. He’s not a reader or a thinker, and his damaged ego is hammered home by his brief courting of the dowdy Kristen (Kerry Kenni-Silver). As he descends the rungs of the economic ladder, his “downsizing” becomes inversely proportional to his spiritual strength as a suffering and self-sacrificing individual. It has a Christian message of goodness. This is a Francis of Assisi parable where Paul’s innate nobility becomes saintly by the brutality of circumstance. “Let me take all the weight,” Paul says to his wife in an early domestic scene, for this is his assigned role as caregiver to those in need.
After a drug-induced transformative party experience at the apartment of Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a charming contraband smuggler with a heart of gold, silver, and copper, he meets the one-legged Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Ngoc is a bossy civil rights campaigner from Vietnam, a victim of her government’s underhanded methods to remove dissidents by shrinking them and handing them off to slavers who provide cheap labor for the wealthy West. Through Ngoc, Paul is introduced to the underbelly of Leisureland, the barrio on the other side of a huge wall. Here immigrants are living in near destitution next to a society that barely admits their existence, in prison-like tenements, where, in an oddly effective scene, they are lulled in their quotidian lives by communal screenings of Bonanza in Spanish.
After Paul accidentally breaks Ngoc’s prosthetic leg, he agrees to do her housecleaning work as well as her community support, helping the sick and picking up free food from around town to give to those struggling to survive in the tenement. Dusan is initially amused by Paul’s willingness for abasement but does offer him a way out with a trip to Norway and the opportunity to meet the originals of the experiment. This is more of a plot ploy to get our three main characters to the Norwegian community as Ngoc goes as well, saying that she has an outstanding invitation from the main scientist behind downsizing, Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Swedish actor Rolf Holger Lassgård).
The fjord scenes are a welcome respite for the audience at this point from Paul’s social descent. He gets to be happy for a little while in a foreign land with friendly people. Too bad the world is going to end. Asbjørnsen’s wife explains something about “a methane release in Antarctica” that means the annihilation of the human race. On the plus side, Paul and Ngoc cement their relationship in a charming manner on the tiny ferryboat as it makes its way up the still waters of the fjord at night.
The settlement looks like an idyllic lilliputian commune (from c. 1972), with small wooden houses with sod roofs, horse-drawn buggies, and bongo drums. It is inhabited solely by folk with generous hearts and amiable natures, though one or two are a little loopy. Here Paul is informed that the community is planning to go underground in a specially built self-sustainable cavern for eight thousand years to escape annihilation. He is invited to join them. ‘I finally have a chance to do something that matters,” Paul reasons. Ngoc won’t go because she has her responsibilities back in the US. Dusan won’t because he doesn’t believe the destruction of humanity is imminent and thinks the community members are likely to go crazy underground. Paul decides to return with Ngoc, and the last scene has him providing food to a needy neighbor and pausing to look back at an otherwise doleful scene and smile, perhaps in satisfaction at finding a purpose to his life.
So why does all this suggest that progressive politics in America are doomed?
It is clear the creators didn’t want a Capra movie where the system collapses when faced with the ire of a single good man. Nor did they want us to wallow in despair. This is neither a Mr. Smith Goes to Washington nor a Brazil. This is an appeal to the beatitudes. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek. They present no other solution. Paul finds his place in the world by laboring each day between the cracks of society to sustain what the system fails to do. How effectively could an argument for health care for all fit into this cinematic framework?
Ngoc is a Christian. One episode has her dragging Paul to a quaintly ethnic service where she prays in absent-minded rapture. Eighty-five percent of Vietnamese are Buddhist and less than 7 percent Christian. Why not make her what she is twelve times more likely to be? A Buddhist. Yes, a broader American audience gets to perceive her actions in a way they can identify with as churchgoers. Unfortunately, it aids the persistence of a construct of goodness and social responsibility being the sole domain of Christianity, the font of all that is moral and ethical according to many Westerners. On the other hand, there is no religion associated with the Norwegians. Dusan actually accuses them of being “a cult!” In this parable of consumerism versus social responsibility, is northern European social democracy being represented as a cult? That is probably going a bit too far, but the connection has been made. What we are left with is not a call for society to change but for individuals to just be nice to one another. An updating of American individualism to accommodate saintly abstinence and good deeds.
Downsizing is a dystopic satire on American values that has an unsurprising and credible core involving a sick and impoverished underclass. It is credible because the USA is alone among the advanced industrial nations in failing to provide universal health care, preferring, as the statistics clearly show, the most expensive and least efficient option. The film’s solution to this is the action of the good Samaritan. Why this rings true for many Americans is, I would argue, the result of an incessant cultural reinforcement of the idea of any practical change being regarding as socialist and contrary to the idea of (American) individualism. Those kooky Europeans and their social experiments! Communes. Bongo drums and cheesecloth shirts. As Dusan intimates, those things fall apart and they end up killing each other. Capitalism is the natural order. Injustice is inevitable. Even in what some might see as a liberal Hollywood film, the politics are reactionary and a reinforcement of the status quo. There is little room to see America as the odd one out, the result of a geographically marooned superpower with first a century of slavery and then a century of apartheid shaping a systemic disdain for its lower class.
Of course, the only social positions providing universal health care in this country are in the military. Rumor has it the armed forces are not generally favorable to leftist thinking, but this health-care business makes them look like a bunch of commies. Or does it? The history of national health care is tied to conservative nations with a strong military, the first occurring in Germany in the 1880s. The development of the British NHS required arguments from both sides of the aisle. David Lloyd George, the Liberal Prime Minister (1916-22), is famously quoted as saying “The white man’s burden had to be carried on strong backs.”2
While there are a flurry of articles suggesting “socialism” is “not a dirty word anymore,” I think it far too early to expect a sea change in this nation’s thought patterns.3. Communism used to be the bogeyman. In this era it’s socialism. And the political right and middle ground have done such a remarkable job of tainting the term with negative connotations that many people react just like “poor” Meghan McCain and say, “It’s petrifying to me that [socialism] is being normalised! Some of us do not want socialism normalized in this country.”4 The Democratic Socialists of America may crow about having 47,000 members now, but a quarter of the American population consider themselves Evangelicals. And if that isn’t bad enough, we have two decent and educated men like Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne reminding us so cleverly of the futility of supposed socialist aspirations. Go it alone, they seem to tell us, like St. Francis, like Mother Theresa, like Paul on the road to Leisureland.
I have no doubt that Downsizing will become more popular as time goes on. It is an intelligent and wonderfully performed film. My only regret is that it does nothing to alter the entrenched biases of a middle class still traumatized by the political values of the 1950s.
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All images courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
- Slapstick of Another Kind was the embarrassing movie version adapted and directed by a twenty-three-year-old Steven Paul in 1982. [↩]
- “The Three Myths of the NHS.” The Economist, 28 June 2018 https://www.economist.com/britain/2018/06/28/the-three-myths-of-the-nhs [↩]
- “It’s Time to Reclaim “Socialism” from the Dirty-Word Category,” Washington Post. August 19th 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/its-time-to-reclaim-socialism-from-the-dirty-word-category/2018/08/19/88c9d87e-a247-11e8-83d2-70203b8d7b44_story.html?utm_term=.d31be81f677c [↩]
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vW32S19vp0k&t=139s [↩]