Alexander Payne has caught a lot of flak over the years for almost exclusively concerning himself with White People Problems. Looking at his films leading up to this point, that’s a fair criticism - his casts have been fairly monochromatic and his themes have rarely dealt with issues outside his own personal sphere. In Downsizing, Payne has stepped outside of his wheelhouse slightly, and the results present a strong argument that directors maybe shouldn’t tackle subjects they don’t fully understand just for the sake of it.
The concept behind Downsizing is a charming, Michel Gondry-lite one: in the near future, Norwegian scientists discover a process through which human bodies can be shrunk down to a height of about five inches. This process, dubbed “downsizing,” is aimed at mitigating or halting global warming, given that a downsized person’s carbon footprint is a fraction of a regular person’s. Once downsized, people go to live in self-contained colonies, furnished and fed with tiny replicas of everyday objects - and at a fraction of the price of full-sized living, tiny luxury becomes accessible to even average normal-sized citizens.
Into that pretty interesting concept thuds occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), hoping to find happiness - or something. But Paul’s dreams get cut short pretty rapidly as the seedier side of his colony rears its head. Even a utopian society will inevitably end up divided into rich and poor, replete with black markets and human exploitation, and the world of Downsizing is no different. Befriending Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident turned small against her will, Paul tours the slums of the little, learning the value of human life and kindness, even as the Earth approaches its climate event horizon.
That all sounds a lot more interesting than Downsizing actually is. The film constantly hints at fascinating or exciting ideas - insects as giant marauding threats; a duo of illicit import/export experts played by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier; forcible downsizing; purposeless lives of luxury enabled by a subjugated, hidden-away working class - none of which get developed in any significant way. Rather, Payne pushes his clever concept (reminiscent of Dick’s Perky Pat or Clarke’s later Rama books) in the least interesting direction at every turn.
Then there’s the fact that Downsizing sinks depressingly deep into poverty tourism, with all its people of colour serving only to teach Paul a lesson. In casting his movie in a more diverse way than usual, Payne only draws more attention to the fact that he doesn’t really understand how to tell diverse stories. Though Paul’s romance with the unimpeachable Ngoc Lan is sweetly portrayed, it exists purely for Paul’s benefit, as does everything else in the story. Like a miniaturised Truman Show, nothing happens in Downsizing that does not directly affect Paul Safranek. And while it was reportedly Chau own choice to have her character speak in broken, halting English, inspired by her own parents, it's a choice Payne could have and maybe should have vetoed. Just as well she gives the film’s best performance - the dialect might have worked elsewhere, but not in this white-as-fuck movie.
Payne also seems incapable of maintaining the film's tone. Where ordinarily Payne's fine control over performances is his strong suit, Downsizing's cast is all over the place. Damon appears lost in his purely reactive role; Waltz essentially mugs his way through his Eastern European importer/exporter; other characters are seen through wholly incompatible social-realist or absurdist lenses. Otherwise serious scenes are punctuated with lowest-common-denominator jokes; important character moments are completely undone by ham-fisted attempts at non-sequitur comedy. Coming from a director who ordinarily balances drama and comedy with ease, it’s shocking and disappointing. (And if you're here for costars Kristen Wiig or Jason Sudeikis, get ready to be disappointed - they're barely in the movie.)
Perhaps the greatest condemnation that can be leveled against Downsizing is that its entire story could be told without its high-concept science fiction altogether. The third act essentially paints the entire endeavour as pointless; while that could have been turned into a significant thematic element, it just sort of sits there, with Paul and Ngoc Lan’s romance (and Paul’s newfound love for the common people) taking centre stage. There’s a strong movie about climate-change desperation in here, but Payne isn’t interested in making it; Paul’s character arc could take place in the ordinary-sized world and play out exactly the same.
Credit to Payne for pushing himself outside his comfort zone, I guess. The first twenty minutes of the movie are an absolute delight, full of high-concept whimsy, but once Matt Damon reaches his five-inch form, it all falls into dreary cliche. When the audience ends up daydreaming about Matt Damon being eaten by giant bugs, that’s a problem. But it’s more entertaining than Downsizing.