It’s easy to describe most of Alexander Payne’s filmography as “white dudes learn an important lesson: the movie.” And to that end, his latest, Downsizing, feels right at home among titles like Election and Nebraska. Where it stands out is that it finds the director splashing around in the science fiction pool for the first time. The film bears an intriguing satiric premise, tips its hat to all manner of interesting thematic concerns related to that conceit, and begins with promise, only to shit the bed in complete, spectacular, baffling fashion.
Downsizing plays out like a bastardized offshoot of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. To combat overpopulation and dwindling global resources, scientists develop technology to shrink humans to five-inches-tall. Entranced by the possibilities of “going small,” Paul Safrenek (Matt Damon) takes the plunge, only it doesn’t turn out quite as he expected and he learns some valuable lessons along the way.
The strength of Payne’s script, co-authored with frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, is in the clever world building. It glosses over the scientific minutia to focus on the personal and social consequences of deciding to live in corporate-controlled, white bread, strip mall utopias where everyone lives in cookie-cutter McMansions and dines out exclusively at chain restaurants with exclusive contracts.
Downsizing touches on a wealth of potentially interesting moral, ethical, and political questions, like what it means to be a contributing member of society, the impact “downsizing” has on the economy, and the burden it places on those who remain, among others. It’s fertile territory to explore.
One of the crippling problems, however, is that the film chooses never to deal with, resolve, or even discuss these issues in any depth. Instead, the narrative focuses entirely on Paul, who is the milkiest milquetoast ever put to film, and he never becomes anything more. He does grow a bit, but that doesn’t mean he ever gets more interesting, and Damon does nothing to add texture, insight, or charm. It’s a soggy, twice-used teabag of a performance and leaves the satire with no bite.
Initially, Paul intends to downsize with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), but she—don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, it happens early on, is a primary plot point, and is spoiled in multiple trailers—chickens out, leaving him on his own. Once again, he finds himself stuck in a bland, humdrum life that’s eerily similar to the one he left behind. He moves to paradise only to wind up stuck in bachelor apartment and another dead end job.
That is, until we come to the first of multiple drastic, lurching shifts in direction, when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist downsized by the government out of retribution. Not only is this another intriguing theme completely ignored—potential misuse of the technology—she exists almost entirely to service Paul learning what’s really important in life.
Ngoc somehow manages to be every Asian stereotype as well as wandering perilously close to “magical negro” territory. She’s a shrill, demanding dragon lady who yells constantly and bosses everyone around in the worst caricature broken English since Breakfast at Tiffany’s. At the same time, she’s also this go-getter overachiever who stops at nothing to meet her goals. Primarily, though, she exists to be the brown person who opens the white dude’s eyes to the realities of the world.
Giving it the benefit of the doubt, I firmly believe Downsizing has its heart in the right place. But it’s almost jaw-droppingly tone deaf. Ngoc is the only person of color with any substance. Everyone else is either there to dole out information to Paul, impart a lesson, or as “look how diverse this cast is” window dressing. (There’s a dying woman without health care so Paul can realize, oh my god, some people don’t have health care! Or an old man thrown away by society so he can realize, holy crap, society throws away old people it has no more use for!)
In multiple scenes, the camera pans across crowds of mixed faces representing every ethnicity. It’s carefully choreographed, and Payne and company clearly went out of their way to accomplish this. Yet almost none of them speak or do anything beyond stand in place. But hey, when he shows up at his going away party, Matt Damon does shake hands and offer a cursory greeting to the black guy before ignoring his existence completely. It feigns diversity without actually providing any.
Ngoc shows Paul how this new way of life harshly mimics what everyone left behind. There’s a decisive class divide—Paul’s playboy neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), sits back while a crew of maids arrive to clean up the remnants of an excessive party. Ngoc takes Paul to the high-rise slums that exist on the distant fringes of small society, populated exclusively by immigrants. (Holy shit, this utopia is actually a dystopia!) She opens his eyes and guides him on this journey of self-discovery…where he ultimately makes little in the way of earnest change.
And this isn’t the only seismic shift Downsizing makes. Every time it course-corrects, it’s like hitting the reset button and starting all over again. As a result, there’s never a focused, coherent narrative direction and it plods along in fits and starts until you wonder what’s going on, why you should care, or even what’s the point?
Downsizing isn’t without momentary charms. Waltz clearly has a lot of fun, and Udo Kier as his oddball sidekick is entertaining and weird as all hell, though they offer little value beyond plot mechanics. Though it rarely uses the size discrepancies, especially outside of the first third, there are occasionally breathtaking moments where Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael employ this inherent juxtaposition or find clever visual gags.
The ambition is plain to see, and while the potential shines through in certain moments, Downsizing suffers because we see what it could have been. There are countless more interesting movies that could have been made within this framework. Instead, every choice leads down the most boring, self-indulgent path, and the destination is this empty void of a movie. [Grade: D+]