Downsizing: A Big Mess, by David Bax
Alexander Payne’s Downsizing is a comedy about the end of the world. It might not be so literal about those things as, say, This Is the End or any of the many other apocalypse comedies we’ve seen in recent years. But make no mistake, though the world doesn’t actually end on screen in this movie, Downsizing aims to use its high concept to mirthfully process the extinction of the human race. Given the state of our climate, that’s something we need to do. This overlong and under-focused film, however, is only sporadically successful at it.
Downsizing marks Payne’s second time ever directing a film not based on pre-existing material and his first time ever directing science fiction. Though his main character maintains the Middle American humility and myopia of most of his work, the premise is new territory for him. Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig are Paul and Audrey Safranek, a middle class Omaha couple at the dawn of a new world. Norwegian scientists have figured out how to shrink people to the size of small action figures and, in fifteen years’ time, entire communities have been set up for those who want to do their part to reduce humanity’s footprint on the world and, oh yeah, also to live the high life in a place where a dollar stretches about 80 times further. Paul and Audrey decide to go for it.
Payne doles out the comedy in the form of visual gags, like a tiny scientist giving a speech into a lapel mic clipped to the front of his tiny podium, as well as the general spectacle of juxtaposing very small people with regular sized things like a box of crackers or, later, a bag of crackers. There are other, non-cracker comparisons as well.
Outlandish as that may be, Downsizing actually does a commendable job of selling the reality of its sci-fi setup. Mostly, it does so by, pardon the pun, downplaying it. “Getting small,” as the life change becomes colloquially known, is presented with all the banal, consumerist excitement of signing up for a timeshare. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor don’t go to great lengths to prove they have everything covered. All they have to convince us of is that the people in charge have thought of everything because, like a five star hotel, it’s in their financial interest to do so. That is what makes it so frustrating when the movie betrays the easy confidence it has instilled in the viewer by throwing a big contrivance into the mix. Paul, who was supposed to be retired as the small-world equivalent of a multimillionaire, suddenly loses almost all of his money. Presumably, Payne and Taylor thought it was necessary to reduce Paul to an ordinary, if tiny, working stiff in order to tick off their thematic points. This is frustrating firstly because the full details of how he became broke are unsatisfyingly skimmed over and secondly because there ends up being no real narrative purpose to his financial humbling.
That’s because Downsizing already has a much better suited representative of the underserved, maligned, working poor in Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), except that it foolishly neglects to introduce her until halfway through the movie. Chau’s performance is a thing of wonder, shattering the possibility of her being reduced to an Asian stereotype due to her thick accent and sometimes shaky English (which is a hell of a lot better than my Vietnamese, so who am I to judge?) and bringing forth a perfectly crystallized character defined by a rare symbiosis of altruism and pragmatism. She observes, “When you know death come soon, you look around things more close.” In that moment, only a nitwit would laugh at her awkward phrasing; instead, we should look to her omission of certain parts of speech as metaphorical. Things are getting worse, she says, so let’s not waste any time making things better. Ngoc is the heart of the film but she has no patience for all that extraneous “heart” bullshit.
Even as Ngoc becomes the best and most important character, though, Payne insists on centering Paul. The result is a movie that is often guilty of the exact faults it’s trying to illustrate. Paul starts out as an example of how privilege (racial, gender, class, etc.) allows even “good” people to ignore the continuing reality of what’s going on in the world after they’ve reached a basic and easy leveling of doing the “right” thing. And they’ll still get more reward for their miniscule efforts than the people they’re allegedly helping. But even as Paul sees more and does more, he never really grows to understand this. He never has to perceive Ngoc as anything more than his own guiding light, his salvation at the end of it all. Downsizing tries to mock the “white savior” trope and then ends up becoming it. Maybe it should have been shorter?