High-concept social satire is incredibly difficult, which may be why there are so few examples of filmmakers getting it right. Clearly, you’ve got some very smart guys on the case when your screenwriters are Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, but sometimes, even smart isn’t enough to make something work.
Downsizing is being sold as a wacky comedy about conspicuous consumption among a new leisure class created by literally shrinking people to five inches tall. If you were to judge the movie based on its trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that’s all there is to the film, but it’s a weird bait-and-switch for the studio to pull. The actual film is far more interested in pushing Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) past his breaking point to see what he’ll do, and in exploring the difference between a life spent wanting, and a life in service. Those aren’t bad ideas in and of themselves, but this might be the most strangely atonal mess of Payne’s entire directorial control, and a huge disappointment considering the talent involved.
The film begins by showing us how “downsizing” began in the first place, and then traces the way the practice started to reorder the world socially. It’s a huge idea, and the first real indication of how the film struggles comes from the way they download all of this information for us. There’s nothing elegant about it. It’s just this blast of world-building up front that has to happen to set the table. One of the things that matters in film storytelling is perspective. Who is observing this story? What’s the overall perspective? Omniscient? Is someone telling the story to us? Downsizing seems to almost have a separate short film grafted onto the front of it before we even get to the story about Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who are both struggling with where they fit in the world financially. The idea that is pitched to them is that choosing to become smaller automatically makes their assets last longer and go further. They are enticed with the promise of wealth and luxury, and there’s a cutting metaphor in there somewhere, but like the film as a whole, that satiric focus never quite gets there.
See, Audrey panics at the last moment, and when Paul wakes up after going through the procedure, he finds himself alone. That nest egg that was going to make him wealthy is gone, and he ends up going to work for the company that shrank him, working as a telemarketer in another dead-end life. It’s a depressing double-back, and again… it’s hard to miss the broad point here. We are offered easy fixes all the time, and more often than not, they make someone rich, but not the person they were supposed to help.
Paul tries to adjust to his new life, and he meets his insane neighbor, Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a shady hedonist who seems to have made a perfectly lovely life for himself on the grey market fringes of this new world. Because of Dusan, he also meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who was a famous dissident, shrunken by her oppressive government as a punishment and granted asylum by America. She’s cleaning apartments now, something that blows Paul’s mind, and from the moment he meets her, he is pulled into her orbit. He sees how hard she works, how nonstop her daily schedule is, and how she takes care of this huge community of people through small gestures every day. He also manages to destroy her artificial leg during their first encounter, obligating himself to help her until he can repair it properly or replace it.
Even as I describe it, I can see ways it might work, but I keep hitting a brick wall when it comes to Ngoc. When Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice came out, I spent a good deal of energy pointing out the work by Hong Chau as Pearl, who kept showing up in delightfully strange little left turns in the film, and I think she’s very good at playing exactly what Payne and Taylor wrote for her here. But what they wrote for her is a problem in so many ways that it’s kind of breathtaking.
First, I’m tired of movies in which the hero of the film is a man who has to have all of his emotional work done by someone else, often a woman, who is treated as an attachment to him rather than as an actual character. Ngoc exists to fix Paul and to teach Paul and to fuck Paul — her pidgin-English rant about the eight different fucks that exist in Western culture is meant to be endearingly frank, but it feels like words crafted by smug white writers, not like something this person would ever, under any circumstances, actually say — and to pick Paul up when he stumbles, and he is willing to take it all from her, no questions asked. She’s not a character. She’s an angel, dropped in to save him because he never going to save himself. It’s almost pointless to get into the details of the particular accent and the writing of the broken English, because I seriously don’t know how that kind of comedy writing is still being done in 2017. One of the reasons she’s been in the conversations for awards is because she manages to make what is horrifying on the page into something human in spite of the writing.
The same cannot be said for Matt Damon. I like Damon. I find him affable and, in the right role, quite winning. But if we’re talking about limited range, he might be the poster boy, and this movie lays bare some of his biggest blind spots as an actor. He’s not great at playing pain. Not real pain. Not worn down by life pain. At his absolute worst, Paul seems slightly miffed. Mildly inconvenienced. Generally put out. And, sure, that’s built into the notion that this movie is trying to harpoon people from the wealthiest nation on the planet bemoaning their own incomes while sitting on a pile of assets that would make people in places all over the world positively Scrooge McDuck-rich by local standards. But Damon’s winning affability is not the sort of world-weariness that would maybe turn Paul into something more lived in or alive. He’s a weird tour guide into this particular world, and his transformation is so poorly illustrated that it’s impossible to engage with the film as either satire or sincerity.
I can’t even get behind the film on a purely technical level. While it is clearly by design, the garish photography by Phedon Papamichael and the cheerfully artificial aesthetic of the production design by Stefania Cella make it all feel like a theme park ride based on an ‘80s sitcom. There’s an ugly heart to Downsizing and an ugly eye shooting it, and the result is dispiriting. For the first time, I feel like the knock against Payne and Taylor as being condescending and misanthrophic, descriptors that have dogged them from the start, is starting to become immutable truth. This movie not only feels like it’s hateful and phony toward Ngoc, but towards everyone. It’s not clear by the end who Payne and Taylor really empathize with in the film. When a man angry demands at Paul’s going-away party, “Do you think you should have the same rights as us normal people?”, it feels like they think they’re making some great point, but what’s the target in that moment? Making a choice about your lifestyle is not the same thing as being a member of a persecuted class of our society, and trying to create something to wedge that kind of social commentary into is only successful if the metaphor itself somehow illuminates or informs. Here, by the time the credits role, the point of the whole thing is clear as mud. Paul is a passive nothing, White Privilege in a tiny sweater, and of all the stories that could be told in the world this movie creates, his is perhaps the least compelling.
But, hey, Udo Kier rules. So it’s not a complete loss.
Running time: 135 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic