The best thing that can be said about Alexander Payne’s new comedy, Downsizing, is that it’s not always easy to tell where it’s going or what it is doing. Coming at the end of a year in which many of the most acclaimed movies made sure to underline or italicize their various subtexts so that there was no chance of us missing the point — with bristling wit and urgency in a film like Get Out; more laboriously in The Post or The Shape of Water — Downsizing is set in a more cryptic typography. We can read into nearly every carefully shaped scene, but not always with confidence that the message is being received.
This indeterminacy is probably how Payne wants it. Ever since his acidly funny debut, Citizen Ruth — starring the great Laura Dern as a glue-huffing mother-to-be who becomes the poster girl for warring anti-abortion and pro-abortion-rights factions — the director has delighted in seriocomic quandaries in which (to paraphrase the classic French drama The Rules of the Game) “everyone has their reasons.”
In the viciously cynical Election, Matthew Broderick’s ethically compromised civics teacher and Reese Witherspoon’s unscrupulous wannabe student-body president appear as two sides of the same tarnished coin; the wine-touring horndogs of Sideways and the sweepstakes-chasing father-son duo in Nebraska are all deeply flawed and more fascinating for it. The ending of About Schmidt, where Jack Nicholson’s glib, dyspeptic antihero bursts into grateful tears after reading a letter from a foster child he’s never met, reflects either cynical calculation or earned emotion. Good luck trying to convince a viewer who sees one to even consider the other.
Payne makes movies that are hard to reduce, and so it goes with Downsizing, a film that simultaneously satirizes and stumps for reducibility as a worldview. It’s a study of minimalism and its discontents. The outlandish premise of a scientific breakthrough (hatched in the hotbed of efficiency that is Norway) that safely shrinks human beings down to sub-action-figure size becomes a jumping-off point for a meditation on scale and proportionality. It’s all very much of the moment, even as its imagery of a remote, miniaturized kingdom reaches back knowingly to Gulliver’s Travels. But where Jonathan Swift’s washed-up 18th-century adventurer towered over the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput, Payne has imagined a protagonist who willingly sacrifices his stature to mix with the little people — a process whose irreversibility is the source of its appeal and terror.
“It must feel really good to know you’re making a difference,” says occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) to Dave (Jason Sudeikis) over beers in the kitchen at a dinner party. He’s referring to the fact that Dave is now 5 inches tall. “You mean all that crap about saving the planet?” his microscoping drinking buddy replies. “Downsizing is about saving yourself.”
Besides giving Paul the impetus he needs to talk his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), to sign up for miniaturization — a multistep, amusingly bureaucratic undertaking that Payne and cowriter Jim Taylor milk for as much absurdist verisimilitude as they can muster — this scene sets up Downsizing’s central dialectic between well-heeled hedonism and a social conscience. The reason that Paul and Audrey and thousands of other Americans are eager to get small is because it allows them to wipe out their debts and consolidate their assets in a new, microcosmic context; the environmental benefits of reducing waste and conserving resources is a self-serving after-thought to social climbing. The name of the enclosed complex housing America’s version of a shrunken paradise is suggestive of Payne and Taylor’s satirical intentions: Visualized as a series of glistening luxury condos adorned with designer items, it’s called Leisureland.
The trailers have already spoiled the fact that Paul arrives in Leisureland alone; Audrey’s decision to abandon him after he’s already been put under for the (again, absurdly detailed) medical procedure they’d planned to undergo together turns her into the villain of the piece, and she disappears before her husband (or the audience) is able to scrutinize her motives. Her sudden absence leads to a couple of Downsizing’s most striking, brilliant images: Paul signing regular-sized divorce papers by standing on the dotted line where his signature should go, and a shot of a moving company delivering his wedding ring, which now literally and symbolically dwarfs him like a stray roller-coaster loop. As Paul settles into his new digs (nearly 45 minutes into a movie that has taken its sweet time with the kind of high-concept world building that’s more typically the province of the MCU), we wonder what misadventures the smart filmmakers who’ve placed him there are planning.
What Payne and Taylor have in mind is a sentimental education — a moral tale about the importance of being empathetic that’s equally earnest, didactic, and dramatically inert. Payne’s interest in polarities manifests in a pair of characters who represent two different possibilities for a downsized life; Serbian drug dealer Dusan (Christoph Waltz), who plies Leisureland’s populace with mostly harmless barbiturates and preaches the gospel of living large while small; and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). She is Dusan’s cleaning lady, a Vietnamese immigrant, and an ex-political dissident with a prosthetic foot whose professionalized subservience and tenuous residency in a local slum apartment complex shows that the basic socioeconomic inequalities of the wider world have been replicated and even deepened in Leisureland (a fact not included in the brochure).
It’s to Payne and Taylor’s credit that Downsizing doesn’t devolve into a knock-down, drag-out class-war comedy. The gradually coalescing friendship among Dusan, Ngoc, and Paul — who is suspicious and envious of one and guiltily desirous of the other — is gracefully acted and realized across the board. What’s less convincing is the way that Paul’s desire to help the self-reliant Ngoc on her house-cleaning and humanitarian rounds mutates into something perilously close to a white-savior narrative. Despite Chau’s excellent performance (which has been the source of considerable controversy) it’s hard to shake the feeling that she’s there mostly to catalyze her costar’s character’s bout of conscience. If it seems hasty or unfair to demonize Payne for featuring an Asian American character who speaks slightly broken, heavily accented English (“I’m not sure why people are so flabbergasted,” the Vietnamese-born Chau told the Chicago Tribune) it’s also reasonable to point out that Ngoc’s dual function as the film’s funniest and noblest presence short-circuits her complexity. She’s not a stereotype so much as a saint.
Damon, who was badly miscast as a Bigger Than Life–style bad dad in Suburbicon and is having about a crappy a year offscreen as possible, is slightly more in his element as a clueless, early-middle-aged dude wondering what to do with his nascent stirrings of liberal do-gooderism. And yet he still gives a weirdly dull, lifeless performance, attuned to neither the cartoonish comedy of the first half of the film nor the stirrings of seriousness that pop up in the final act.
There’s a conceptual elegance (perhaps even brilliance) to the direction of the story, which reemphasizes the opening sci-fi tropes in a darker register. But even though the last twist is carefully prepared, Paul’s ultimate dilemma and his decision about how to resolve it don’t approach the troubling, sticky ambivalence of Payne’s best work. Instead, Downsizing’s coda has been designed to tell us precisely how and what to feel about what we’ve seen, and it makes an otherwise admirably sprawling, discombobulating movie feel that much smaller as a result.