The Un-Credible Shrinking Man

Alexander Payne’s new film, Downsizing, is a humorless comedy about people who decide to make it big by becoming small – about five inches, more or less. Some Norwegians have invented a process by which people can be shrunk with no other side effects than the need for a whole new wardrobe. The conceit is that you can tell yourself you’re saving the planet by consuming less.

After all, the doll maker who tailors your new suits uses a lot less fabric. A nice illustration of the premise comes when a scientist reveals the first-ever miniaturized man to an audience agog, then displays a half-full trash bag, proudly proclaimed as the waste that the little fella and his three-dozen shrunken comrades have accumulated over four presumably full-sized years.

But the real reason most people go tiny is to become rich. It’s all about scale: your $100,000 estate is suddenly worth millions, because small stuff costs less than big stuff – and, as the saying goes, it’s all small stuff!

Our sad-sack hero is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon). He and the Mrs. (Kristen Wiig) decide to solve their financial problems by downsizing and moving to Lesiureland, a tiny city under a bubble in which all the insects have been killed. (Hey! I thought we were saving the planet.) Unfortunately for Paul, his wife panics, and he ends up in Leisureland mate-less, followed by a divorce that forces him out of the mansion they’d bought and into a high-rise condo, right below a neighbor (played by Christoph Waltz) who throws loud parties, at one of which Paul passes out, and awakens on the neighbor’s floor, just as a crew of tiny, poor (minority) women comes in to clean up.

One of these is a Vietnamese immigrant, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who takes over Paul’s life, cajoling him to help her help the poor in an area outside the bubble where she and others of the indigent small are living. One man’s utopia turns out to be another woman’s hell.

The question becomes: What’s actually being downsized here? The human body, certainly, but, perhaps, also human expectations. The title of a famous book by E.F. Schumacher – that many people “know” but few have read – is Small Is Beautiful. Its subtitle is “A Study of Economics as if People Mattered.” Among Schumacher’s concepts is “enoughness,” the meaning of which is pretty obvious: we need just enough – not more and more, always more. G.K. Chesterton would have approved.

Indeed, what many lionizers of Schumacher miss – those who see him as a guru of the ecological or even Voluntary Human Extinction movements – is that he lionized Chesterton, and – not only G.K.C. – but several popes, including Leo XIII, the Piuses XI and XII, and, perhaps especially, Paul VI, whose Humanae Vitae was among the things that led Schumacher to convert to Catholicism in 1971 – two years before the publication of Small Is Beautiful, a book very much about the central concept of Catholic social theory: subsidiarity.

The extent to which any of this was in the minds of director Payne or his co-screenwriter Jim Taylor, I cannot say. (Mr. Payne is a 1979 graduate of Catholic Creighton Prep in Omaha, where some scenes in Downsizing were filmed.)

            Downsizing is all about scale, although its conclusion seems to be that big is too big and small is too small, although not because the one or the other can’t work, rather that no matter what scale is pursued by us humans, we miss the point of life when we seek material rather than spiritual goods.

But there’s a temptation faced by any Catholic moviegoer to read his own worldview into any film he sees – in this case, to unravel the fabric of Downsizing in search of even a few threads of faith. Many did that with Mr. Payne’s first film, Citizen Ruth, an uneven satire of the Abortion Question in America, in which both pro-choice and pro-life forces come off as ugly and duplicitous – a pox-on-both-your-houses comedy. The same may be said about Downsizing, in that everybody belongs to one or another cult and the small behave just as badly as their now gigantic brethren.

Despite a fine performance by Mr. Waltz as the sweet but shady Dusan Mirkovic, the only character with any real depth in Downsizing is Ngoc Lan, who has suffered terrible hardship, which has led her to direct her erratic energies towards love and service. As written by Messrs. Payne and Taylor, Ngoc Lan is a chaotic mess, but the lovely, diminutive Miss Chau still manages to carry the film. Her passionate longing for goodness breaks your heart.

One might wish, however, that Ngoc Lan didn’t so often use the F word, which she does over and over in the film’s climactic scene – a kind of parody of Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet wherein Polonius goes on about “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical . . .” except that Ngoc Lan is delineating the ways a couple can fornicate.

For some reason, this Christian exile from Vietnam, where 90 percent of Christians are Catholic, belongs to a Pentecostal Iglesia, perhaps because no priests have downsized or, if some have, none has come to Leisureland. Indeed, one wonders what the Roman Catholic Church would make of the science of shrinking humans. Pope Francis might admire the diminished impact tiny people would have on Gaia, but he’d surely be sad to learn that consumerism is actually outsized in Leisureland.

The scale of things is handled reasonably well early in the film, until we enter Leisureland, at which point everything and everybody is small. There are a couple of sight gags to remind us that these folks are not our size, but throughout most of the movie they’re in proportion to one another and their surroundings. One wishes for a battle with a pussycat!

If Thomas Hobbes saw Downsizing, he might describe it as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish” and, with a twinkle in his eye, “short.”

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Downsizing is rated R for some not-very-revealing nudity and for the frequent deployment of F-bombs. In the nearly empty theater where I saw the film, the only other people there – and they arrived half-an-hour late – were a couple and their 4-year-old. Bad choice, folks.

Brad Miner

Brad Miner

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and Board Secretary of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His new book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. The Compleat Gentleman, is available on audio.

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