The closing night film at this year’s Fantastic Fest was a bit of an odd choice from the get-go: Alexander Payne’s high-concept science-fiction dramedy Downsizing, which offers up a new summation of the director’s talents and his precipitous flaws as a storyteller and a patronizer. Written back in his dry period between the Oscar-winning Sideways in 2004 and his return to mainstream cinema, 2011’s The Descendants, it’s a weird and deeply ill-conceived work that sticks out in his filmography like a sore thumb, a swing for the fences that somehow results in the bat flying into the stands and hitting a child. To say it was poorly received at the festival is an extreme understatement — several of the critics I talked to at the closing night party afterwards who weren’t reviewing the film for their outlets admitted to me that they’d left midway through the movie — and I’m sad to say that I’m with everybody else on this one.
Downsizing begins promisingly enough, if not a little too twee for most tastes: A Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgard) discovers a procedure which can shrink people down from their original height to around five inches tall, and releases his findings to the world in hopes of preventing both ecological catastrophe and the plague of overpopulation. He starts a pastoral community out in the mountains, and they live a pastoral and beautiful life. The procedure starts to spread like wildfire, though it’s not without its discontents, and becomes particularly attractive to the kind of middle-class American who extravagant wealth has always been out of the picture for, as the shrinking procedure reduces your monetary footprint as well, turning many with net worths of roughly a hundred thousand dollars into millionaires at the end of their procedures. So, at least in the US, the downsized men and women form what essentially are gated communities (with a healthy dose of Florida-style retirement community thrown in for good measure), and it’s this kind of life that attracts occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) to leave their colossal lives behind and join a downsized community. They plunge their savings into a giant mansion and plan on living a life of leisure after the procedure is done, though they’re separated right as it begins to start (apparently men and women can’t go through together for some reason).
It’s this one sequence that I imagine hooked Payne from the start, which is about as richly imagined a moment of science-fiction that you’ll see from a first-time director all year. Damon, suffering once again for fashion, is shaved completely bald and has his fillings removed (so as to not make his head explode during the shrinking procedure) in a series of rooms so white and spotless it almost verges on creepy, though the director refuses to go there. He’s sedated and placed nude on a white slab, in what amounts to a giant microwave, and in a matter of seconds, he (and some 30-odd other specimens) are shrunk. They’re then scooped up by a series of orderlies, who use giant spatulas to peel them off of the slab, and transferred to a rehab facility for the small. Payne’s camera is admirably lazy in these moments, as he lets the oddness marinate, though Rolfe Kent’s score is a bit overwhelming at times, and gives his cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael (with whom Payne has worked with since Sideways), ample room to have fun with the setting.
It’s while he’s recovering and after the film’s single best sight-gag and product-placement that he gets a devastating phone call: His wife has abandoned him at the facility and fled to the airport, remaining in the world of the regular-sized, which leaves Damon shit out of luck and five inches tall. The mansion they originally wanted to sustain them through a long and comfortable retirement stands empty and silent, and eventually he loses it in the divorce. So, he starts working as a telemarketer for Lands’ End, and lives in a shitty apartment beneath a wild European (Christoph Waltz) who very well might change his life if he ever works up the courage to go to one of his parties.
Payne largely abandons his initial premise after the 45-minute mark, once his solid sight gags are finally stale and worn through, and it’s a damn shame. Something could have been done with this to make it an interesting and worthwhile critique of modern society, and it’s bizarre how much time Payne spends in the first act setting up potentially interesting conflicts for the remainder of the film before abandoning them in his quest to remake The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. For instance, as an angry drunk brings up at Damon and Wiig’s goodbye-large-world party, how fair is it to the rest of the populace, with all of the economic issues that come with downsizing, that each small person gets a single vote of equal status to those left large and as a subservient labor force to the small and incredibly wealthy? How does life inside of the gated communities among the small play out differently compared to our world? How do they deal with rain, or, God forbid, a rat infestation? I know that Payne’s afraid of his movie veering straight into Rick Moranis’s territory, but Christ in heaven there must be something to this premise other than opportunities for rampant product placement (in what seems to be initially an anti-commercial film) and your generic mom-friendly messages about how saving one life is more worthy than retreating from the world in an ivory tower (or dank basement) of fear and privilege. Sure, it’s a nice enough thesis, but it’s stunningly incompetent and unfit for our current political moment.
I guess it’s safe to say that Damon has struck out this year, with Downsizing completing a trifecta of odd failures and curiosities making up all of his output this year, and he’s largely a non-presence here. Quite literally, he’s thrown into another everyman role, whose inherent blandness and lack of character definition are both part of the point and an immediate dramatic road block. He’s a lump of clay from start to finish that is molded only in the clumsiest of ways whenever Payne needs for his tiny Job to suffer through a change of heart. That includes his divorce from Wiig (who is barely even in the damn film in the first place), which has all the emotional impact of a pin dropping on a platinum floor, and his few friendships, including a rich asshole (Jason Sudeikis) and whatever the hell Waltz is doing here outside of having a great time with some studio money. He plays Dusan, a smuggler/importer who specializes in getting the kind of shit that the overseers in the large world wouldn’t let in (Cohibas, Absolut Vodka) and he’s engaging in a way that few others in the film are, paired wonderfully with a dry and occasionally shockingly moving Udo Kier as a business partner and confidant. Damon’s best scenes, ironically enough, come with Kier, a boat captain who downsized in order to live a life of ease, and who has, through countless roles and endless charisma, the kind of weathered beauty that gives a line a lived-in quality.
Yet the most make-or-break element of Downsizing, aside from its particular smarminess and Payne’s sleepy direction, is Hong Chau’s performance as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident shrunken against her will by the government for protesting the construction of a dam near her village. In another bit of fascinating world-building that Payne refuses to explore more than having it be a recurring joke, she comes to the US via a television box along with many others, shipped over from her country across the Pacific. She’s the only survivor of this voyage, and loses her leg below the knee in the process. When Damon meets her, Chau’s character is cleaning houses on a prosthetic barely better than a peg leg, and he connects with her after remembering her from the television and offering assistance with her false foot (after all, what are occupational therapists really for if not to help random people after their licenses have expired), and, of course, they start to fall in love with one another because god damn it this is how these movies work, right? This all would just be boring and not necessarily worth of excessive notation if Chau hadn’t played the role with the most intensely stereotypical way possible, and if the film had any idea with what to do with her performance outside of giving her the traditional role of “person of color who helps white guy see the light” in the narrative. I’ve heard that this was her choice in playing the role, and I honestly have no idea how to evaluate it (so please pay attention to critics of color here) but I was cringing often and painfully once she begins to consume the whole of the film’s second and third acts.
It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker less suited to the task of taking on the issues of global poverty and overpopulation than Alexander Payne, and the unwieldy nature of Downsizing’s structure and it’s utter and overwhelming emptiness at its heart speaks to this. As the narrative begins to expand and its characters travel the globe and open their eyes to the suffering faced by many and our response to it, Payne loses sight of the skill and intense focus that so entranced critics and audiences earlier on in his career and begins to rely on your standard series of tropes that fit any given enlightenment narrative. His best work has always focused on the small stories of humanity that the overwhelming majority of modern culture misses or lacks the depth in order to deal with thoroughly; and Downsizing makes that quality manifest. In doing so, it totally misses the mark.