featured essay

Kevin Lau



Can money really buy happiness? If so, what does it actually mean to be happy? What constitutes a good life? Alexander Payne’s 2017 film, Downsizing, attempts to approach these questions, but ends up falling flat and dragging on far longer than it needs to.

Or does it?

The film starts off with explaining the scientific concept of shrinking people: How it is humanity’s next step in their civilization as it will solve their problem of overpopulation and help reduce the risk of global warming due to everything being manufactured on a miniature scale. The government is not forcing this on the population, but rather suggesting it to the public to go small. Ultimately, I would consider this to be very well thought out.

After a while, we are introduced to Paul and Audrey Safranek who are a married couple barely scraping by. Paul is unhappy with his life as a physical therapist and he notices his wife is also unhappy due to the lack of money (when you downsize, your money equates higher due to only having to use a fraction of normal-sized resources). During this build up to the point where they decide to shrink themselves, Paul is shown looking at random banners or brochures that brag about the philosophy of happiness, such as it is just one step away or that he must take a leap of faith.

He’s not really doing this for himself, though. He is constantly talking about it with Audrey and making sure that it’s something that she wants to do as well because he just wants her to be happy. If she thrives, he thrives. After the shrinking process, though, Paul wakes up with a phone call from Audrey saying that she was scared and didn’t know what she was thinking, that she should have been thinking of herself. Paul then realizes that she cancelled her shrinking process and left him, later on doing the paperwork for a divorce.

This leaves Paul to aimlessly live his miniature life alone and depressed. His wife took all the money and now he works a nine-to-five office job. Then, at the midpoint of the film, a completely different plot presents itself when Paul meets a Vietnamese woman who was smuggled into the country, but that’s not important for this review. I want to talk about the ending instead because the final scene shows the progression of Paul’s character after all of the mumbo jumbo of shrinking and going to Norway to give supplies to a cult who believes the apocalypse is just around the corner: Paul becomes a physical therapist again, but he smiles.

Essentially, Paul is in the same place at the end as he was at the beginning, the whole time trying to justify his pathetic existence by tagging along with what everyone else is doing and trying to find his place in the world. The movie as a whole begs the question as to whether Paul is really happy and why? What defines happiness? Is he living a good life?

The philosopher Thomas Aquinas, whose ideas I believe are apt for this analysis, states that living a good life relies on effect and principle, making it different for each person depending on which virtues they possess. In Paul’s case, his virtues are compassion and good judgement (he wants to help people and can tell when people are struggling or in need of help that he can provide).

For the effect: The good he does for people and the happiness they express allows Paul to enjoy their happiness as his own. There are a few scenes where Paul goes out of his way to help people out of the goodness of his own heart. He even states that he doesn’t like to see people suffer unnecessarily, especially when it’s something he can easily fix.

For the principle: Paul enjoys using his skills and knowledge of physical therapy to teach people how to better overcome their carpal tunnel or prosthetics. He feels alive and important when he exercises his virtue of compassion. Then, finally at the end, Paul commits to helping people, giving him a sense of purpose and understanding as to what his role is in the world: A helper, not a hero.

Therefore, perhaps Downsizing’s ultimate message is that not all of us are meant to be active protagonists, but, if we can find our niche, providing good to others and feel happy from their happiness, then we’ve found true happiness and, in turn, the meaning of a good life.

Kind of a boring idea for a movie, right? Of course, Downsizing’s execution of the idea and plot is absolutely messy and drawn out. Imagining the film as a puzzle, all the pieces are there but writer/director Alexander Payne just did not put it together properly. Then again, what more should we have expected from the minds behind Jurassic Park III?

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  MARCH. 9TH. 2020.