‘Downsizing’ Is More of a Man’s Journey in Finding His Purpose Than a Discussion on Overpopulation

By Tracy Wang

At first glance, director Alexander Payne’s newest Science Fiction Comedy-drama film ‘Downsizing’ seems to be another film that discusses the serious issue of overpopulation and also a potential solution. Soon, however, we realize that the film is not really about overpopulation; instead, what it delivers is more of a philosophical alternative route for people who are unsatisfied with their current lives and the society that shapes them.

The film starts with a serious-enough scene in which Dr. Jørgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Holger Lassgård) is busy in his laboratory, and doing labs on white rats. Soon, he finds out that his downsizing procedure has worked, and the result is presented in a conference. People from all over the world see how small he has become, and learn all about the benefits of becoming small. Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) Safranek, a married couple unhappy with their life, decide to try the downsizing procedure, since everyone has been saying how great it has made their lives. However, at the last minute, Audrey flees from the procedure room, and leaves Paul small on his own. Suddenly, the life of downsized doesn’t seem so great at all for Paul, but everything is about to change when he meets Hong Chau (Ngoc Lan Tran), a Vietnamese activist who is now a cleaner. How will Paul’s life become meaningful again? What does it take to start a new life?

The title as well as the first few scenes of the film set audiences on the route of downsizing as a solution for overpopulation. Though the idea of downsizing can be both daunting and funny, it does create a serious atmosphere around the issue of overpopulation. But as the film goes on, we start to think about what downsizing is really solving. Is it really about overpopulation? Or is it more discussing a way for dissatisfied humans to escape from the ‘reality’, especially with so many downsized people living a luxurious lifestyle?

This question is settled somewhat when the character of Hong Chau is introduced. A former Vietnamese activist who was forcibly downsized by her government, Hong Chau is a typical and yet atypical Asian character. Living a hard life in a more working class community (where everyone lives in a small apartment building) and no longer a character of docile nature, she cares deeply about the people around her, and she shows power in ordering Paul to do multiple task and taking control of her life in her accented English. However, the character still presents some stereotypical views of Asians, and some of her comedic moments are actually not that comedic.

When every cleaner who comes into Dusan Mirkovic’s (Christoph Waltz) house is a person of color, and when Mirkovic describes America still as a ‘land of opportunity’ for these cleaners, it is very clear how deep-rooted these stereotypes of Asians doing the cleaning job are. Perhaps this scene is supposed to be seen as a comedic moment when the characters are trying to be sarcastic; the sarcastic tone does not really pay off, and the result is that audiences are still getting a world in which the dominant group is living a rather comfortable life while the rest of the minority needs to fight for their own ways. However, one interesting aspect to look at these scenes is that Hong Chau is actually the catalyst for Paul to find himself again and be great in all his little gestures of kindness (though one can argue she is still the one behind-the-scene).

Even though the comedic scenes of Asians do not add much to the film, the film does show off its sarcastic vibes when Audrey (with one eyebrow shaved already) tells Paul she needs to think more about herself, and when downsizing is not really showing the greater good of humanity. The taste of human selfishness is quite strong, and we do get a positive message out of these stereotypes and selfishness: being great can come all shape and form; it can simply mean being kind to those who are in need.