There’s an important difference between a good premise and a good story. Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has a good premise: In order to combat over population and humanity’s global impact, scientists invent a way to shrink people down to live in miniaturized societies. A good premise, however, can only take a film so far – and while directors like Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze are able to take unusual and imaginative premises and use them to create stories about human connections and relationships, Downsizing is instead a mess of undeveloped caricatures and half-formed ideas that never goes anywhere or makes any sort of statement.
Matt Damon plays the main character Paul Safranek, and one of the most repeated jokes throughout the first half of the film involves people struggling to pronounce his last name correctly. I use ‘joke’ in the loosest term imaginable, as there’s no actual humour involved…it’s literally just people mispronouncing his name while he grimaces. Paul is an exceptionally dull and unlikeable protagonist as he condescends towards nearly everyone he meets, acts indecisive about every major decision presented to him, and remains self-righteous even when his actions exacerbate the problems of other characters. The only reason I find for Payne to centre the story around such a character is that he’s an average white American male and that’s somehow still viewed as a requirement for many Hollywood films.
It’s usually around this point in my reviews that I explore a film’s narrative in some way, but for the first hour of Downsizing it doesn’t even seem to have one. Paul is unhappy in his life, gets shrunk, and remains unhappy in his life – with about three immensely distracting time-jumps in between. It’s not until Ngoc Lan Tran, an activist and refugee from Vietnam who has been forcibly downsized by her government, is introduced that something resembling a plot picks up. Unfortunately this ‘plot’ is nothing more than a lazy and clichéd acknowledgement that ‘Minorities have hard lives’. Payne clearly wanted to make a point about racism, but by doing so only plays into racist stereotypes. It’s repeatedly stated that one of the appeals of being downsized is that a person’s net worth increases drastically, yet every person of colour depicted in the feature is either living in poverty or working a custodial job. Which brings us to the character of Ngoc Lan Tran. While actress Hong Chau does all she can with the part, utilising all her talents to make her easily the most sympathetic and likable character in the film, Tran is written to speak in broken English and with such an exaggerated accent that I just felt bad for the actress. I can’t say for certain if it’s a remotely accurate depiction of a Vietnamese refugee, but the script by Payne and Jim Taylor certainly doesn’t try to make her seem real – regularly using Tran’s distinctive way of speaking as a source for humour, and reducing a role that had serious potential for both Asian and disabled representation to a side-character whose own story is less important than how it motivates Paul’s growth.
There are few redeeming qualities to Downsizing, but I’ll take what I can get. Stefania Cella’s work as production designer fills the screen with clever visual quirks to remind the viewer of the miniaturized scale – with flowers the size of coffee tables and Popsicle sticks used as bedframes. Established character actors like Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier relish whatever screen time they’re given, but like much of the supporting cast never seem to exist beyond how they can serve Paul when needed. It’s immensely frustrating to see likable performers such as Kristin Wigg and Jason Sudeikis playing major parts in the first third of the film, only to unceremoniously vanish once they’re no longer relevant.
Alexander Payne has demonstrated himself a powerful director of sensitive personal stories with films like The Descendants and Nebraska, but ironically the topics he’s tackling in Downsizing feel too big for him to say anything meaningful. Themes of global warming, environmentalism, racism, and poverty are raised, but in the sense that it feels as though Payne is merely mentioning them with the confidence that someone smarter will find some solution. I’ve seen Downsizing described as a ‘satire’, but it’s unclear what exactly it’s satirizing. Materialism? Man’s ambivalence to the environment? I’m sure there are people out there who could accuse me of ‘missing the point’ Payne was trying to make, but honestly the only thing Downsizing managed to successfully shrink was my interest in the whole stupid concept.
1 and a half stars.