As a film critic, I see some bad movies. It comes with the job. I may not like those films, but I usually understand the instincts that inspired them and the possibility that other viewers could get much more out of them than I did. But, every once in a rare while, I see a movie so baffling, so completely inexplicable that I wonder what the filmmakers could possibly have been thinking. Downsizing is one of those films.
The film opens with the discovery of a new technology that makes it possible for humans to be shrunk down to five inches tall. This not only allows people to live above their means (everything is considerably cheaper when you are small), it also significantly reduces their carbon footprint and defends against overpopulation, thereby protecting the environment. These things appeal to Paul (three-time acting Oscar nominee Matt Damon), an Omaha occupational therapist who is struggling to make ends meet. He is intrigued, not only because of the financial aspect, but also because he feels like he would be making a difference in the world. Paul chooses to undergo the procedure and the rest of the story is about him getting used to his new life and trying to figure out the kind of man he wants to be.
The film tells its story with a light tone and I can certainly see how this story, with this cast (also including two-time Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig (a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee in 2012 for co-writing Bridesmaids), Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier and quick appearances by James Van Der Beek, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern (currently onscreen in The Last Jedi), Niecy Nash and Margot Martindale), could make for a good satire. Especially when you consider that it was written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor (Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar winners in 2004 for Sideways) and directed by Payne. However, Payne and Taylor wanted Downsizing to be more than just a light comedy where Matt Damon shrinks himself to discover his purpose in life. They have bigger issues on their mind.
Of course, wanting to incorporate social messages in your film is not inherently bad. There have been plenty of good, even great, films that were made to get some point across. A film is not really about its story; it is about the way it tells its story. Unfortunately, they deliver their satire in a heavy-handed and tone-deaf way.
WARNING: some mild spoilers follow.
Downsizing’s (129 minutes minus the end credits) message is that our selfish cluelessness and materialism is destroying the Earth and any attempts to save it may already be too late. The message itself is not the problem. I left confused as to whether or not Damon’s Paul was supposed to be considered part of the problem or part of the solution, but that is far from my biggest complaint about the film. The most problematic aspect of the film comes at about the midway point, sparked by the introduction of Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).
Up until her introduction, the film’s message was obvious, but I did not feel like it was being shouted at me. Her character is an example of someone that is unfortunately used a lot in American films: the exotic foreigner who assists the hero on their journey. Her character has a tragic backstory, but Downsizing does not care about that. She is not there for who she is, only what she represents. Absolutely nothing about her character or the way she is presented is subtle. She was forcibly miniaturized by her government and was then smuggled to the United States. She lost her leg during her trip and now works as a maid while living in a very poor area of a community that is supposed to make even the poor rich. She also speaks in broken English with a very strong Vietnamese accent.
Representation is currently a very hot topic in Hollywood and has been for quite a while now. It feels wrong to criticize a film that showcases an Asian American actress in a major role. In fact, Hong Chau is really good with what she has been given and has garnered a lot of praise for her performance. I do not think the way she is used is racist (a claim I came across several times during my research after seeing the film). It is even possible that Payne was purposely confronting stereotypes with the character. But she felt less like a person and more like a series of clichés collected together to help the dull Paul discover his true self. She is a vehicle Payne uses to get his point across. It is a giant waste of a good performance. Perhaps if the film had been working to that point, it would not have bothered me so much. But it was not and, as a result, I was unable to think about anything else during the film’s second half.
This is all too bad because I really like Alexander Payne as a director and usually look forward to his films. This is his first film since 2013’s Nebraska (a very good film) and he obviously had something to say with it. Sadly, he could not figure out how to say it while also making an entertaining movie. An affable lead performance from Matt Damon and a few amusing moments from Christoph Waltz as his Serbian neighbor are not enough to make up for the condescending tone and the (far too many) moments when it feels like Payne is beating viewers over the head with his message. There are times when you can kind of see what Payne was going for and that makes Downsizing an even bigger disappointment.
2 out of 5
Matt Damon as Paul Safranek
Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran
Christoph Waltz as Dusan Mirkovic
Kristen Wiig as Audrey Safranek
Udo Kier as Konrad
Rolf Lassgård as Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen
Jason Sudeikis as Dave Johnson
Directed by Alexander Payne
Written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor