Alexander Payne follows up his pair of family dramas with Downsizing, a movie that doesn’t quite know what it is. I would like to ask Payne if the attraction of Downsizing was REALLY the material, or was it playing around with the various technology required to make it, from the digital effects required to composite “big” and “small” shots, to utilizing old-school tricks like miniatures to realize the world of the downsized people. I assume the draw was the technology, because Downsizing as a story is uneven and off-pace, and it isn’t as sharp and focused as Payne’s previous films, including Nebraska and The Descendants. Alexander Payne is too competent to make a technically insufficient film, but in Downsizing the narrative doesn't hold up.
Matt Damon stars as Paul, a nice enough fellow whose dreams of becoming a doctor are side-tracked when his mother falls ill. But he ends up with an okay life, including an okay wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), but a strained budget prevents them from buying the kind of American Dream McMansion Audrey desires. Parallel to Paul’s depressing post-recession reality there is a magnificent scientific breakthrough, as a pair of Norwegian doctors have discovered how to shrink people to five inches tall. This is posited as a solution to global warming—smaller people means less consumption and less waste—but as time skips ahead, problems become apparent.
The first half of Downsizing seems like it’s going to be, if not outright social satire, then at least social commentary. Issues of potential abuse are raised, including oppressive regimes using downsizing to punish dissidents, and new fears over illegal immigration crop up. Like every technology before it, humanity finds a way to misuse and abuse downsizing, and for a while Downsizing sets up an elaborate allegory for the social strain we’re under now, especially regarding class division and resource competition.
But then Paul downsizes and moves to “Leisure Land”, a planned community for the small that’s pitched exactly like a retirement village (which it essentially is). At this point, the film wanders into character drama as Paul finds himself through his new community, particularly through a relationship with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, Inherent Vice), a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized as punishment and now works as a house cleaner in Leisure Land. There remains some element of commentary as Paul discovers the slums where the low-wage workers of Leisure Land live, but the film definitely shifts tones at this point.
What makes the back half of Downsizing watchable is Chau, who is SPECTACULAR. Paul keeps trying to run away from his problems, first by downsizing and then by joining a Norwegian hippie small-camp who plan to retreat inside a mountain bunker to ride out the end of the world (methane being released from the melting ice caps has doomed humanity). But Ngoc Lan, who has had a way harder life than Paul, sees her contribution to humanity not in helping to build a post-apocalyptic society of the small, but in helping others right now, even if humanity is doomed. Paul’s dilemma becomes the choice represented to Ngoc Lan—to stay in a dying world and alleviate suffering, however insignificant that impact might seem, or retreat from messy humanity, chasing a perfect future?
Once she enters the film, Downsizing suffers from wrong-protagonist syndrome, because Ngoc Lan is so much more interesting than Paul. He’s a middle-aged white dude whose life didn’t quite go the way he wanted; she’s a political dissident who is forcibly shrunken and shipped across an ocean as punishment, losing part of her leg as a result, yet she continues to face the problems before her, determined to help others. Which movie would you rather see, Paul’s or Ngoc Lan’s?
Because in the movie we get, Ngoc Lan is just the device—the person of colour device - by which Paul learns his great life lesson. Ngoc Lan is far too good a character to waste teaching unbuttered white bread like Paul the meaning of life. Hong Chau is wonderful, and I hope this is a breakout moment for her, but I also hope she gets to move on to starring roles, where she can be more than the magical minority figure teaching white people life lessons and how all they need to do is open their eyes to really see the world. The biggest problem with Downsizing isn’t that it is bad, it’s that it’s the wrong movie about the wrong character, and starring the wrong person. But it is also bad, for the record.