Downsizing forever cements my conviction that non-nerds should somehow be legally blocked from trying to do science fiction. A long-gestating project from writer/director Alexander Payne and his longtime scripting collaborator Jim Taylor, the film sees them transferring their shared sense of irony and middle-class malaise from road trips and small-stakes rural drama to an environmentally and existentially minded narrative. They seem to be aiming for something Charlie Kaufman-esque, but can’t even match Fantastic Voyage, or Innerspace… or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
I make those specific comparisons because Downsizing is also about shrinking humans — in this case, as a solution to overpopulation and climate change, by making human waste more manageable. The film scorns the idea that this would make much of a difference, however. Americans are mainly drawn to “going small” because it lets a dollar go a lot further, allowing them to access the lifestyles of the rich. They congregate in literal model communities, ensconced behind walls and draped in nets to protect them from the elements and insects. In one of the story’s few satiric stabs that draws blood, they don’t so much make a better world as they do recreate the failings of late capitalism in miniature, as these tiny cities still rely on an exploited underclass to survive — one made up primarily of immigrants who live in normal-sized dingy shacks converted into apartment blocks, rather than ornate dollhouses.
Into this Lilliputian scenario steps Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who sees it as the perfect way out of his midlife crisis. Unfortunately, his wife Audrey (a deeply uncomfortable to watch misogynist homunculus played by Kristen Wiig) chickens out on going through with the irreversible procedure, leaving Paul shrunk on his own. The point at which the plot can be said to have properly started occurs about 40 minutes in, and it takes even longer than that for Paul to go from moping to some sort of action. That’s when he meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident shrunk by her government against her will, who’s since fled to America, only to end up running a cleaning service. Ngoc Lan refuses to let her dismal past, amputated leg or hardscrabble existence keep her down, and Paul is, of course, cajoled to grow as a person* by her example.
(*Metaphorically — although if he literally grew each time he improved himself, that’d make for a solid parable. See? You need nerds to write this stuff.)
Despite being the movie’s heart and moral compass, Ngoc Lan is also utilized as a constant source of awful racial humor. She speaks in a ghastly “Me love you long time” accent (one of her big laugh lines is in fact “What kind of fuck you give me? [sic, ugh]”). It’s one of those things you’d think Hollywood knew enough not to do anymore, until you remember that Asian stereotypes are still acceptable for some reason. Chau is such a talented actress that she, incredibly, brings the film closest to true emotional resonance in a few separate monologues even while delivering them through that Long Duk Dong voice. But that’s not nearly enough to salvage Downsizing.
Setting aside the runny tar pacing, some lazily motivated plot turns (I could not explain to you why Paul takes one action that sets the last act in motion) and the uncountable ways in which the sci-fi is poorly thought out (the shrinking is a medical procedure, so how do they debiggen trees???), Downsizing fails to draw meaning from its premise. The shrinking could be replaced with any “green” high concept involving people segregating themselves in self-contained communities, and the story wouldn’t change. That’s because the movie isn’t about size-changing as a metaphor or even the environmental concerns it pays lip service to, but rather uses those merely as a backdrop for yet another mediocre middle-aged white man to find himself some self-fulfillment (with the help of a plucky foreign woman).
This is best evinced by the utter lack of imagination in the movie’s portrayal of its fictional world, in which the small people’s dimensional disparity is a source of some sight gags and little else. The shrinking procedure itself is an exception, a hypnotically meticulous montage in which Payne demonstrates some honest-to-god directorial attention, as doctors work in florid synchronized choreography. But then it’s right back to staid framing and functional camera movements. Downsizing thinks it has big ideas, but artistically and intellectually, it’s as small as its protagonists.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.