There slouches Matt Damon, literally shrunk down to a height of five inches, dwarfed by the fountain pen with which he is struggling to sign his divorce papers. It’s the most striking image in Alexander Payne’s sci-fi dramedy Downsizing, a precise mixture of goofiness and heartbreak that the movie—which opened in December to mostly bewildered reviews and flopped badly—never manages to duplicate. Thus concluded an awful year for Damon at the box office. Thanks in large part to his tone-deaf and pancake-handed response to the ongoing Harvey Weinstein scandal, Damon’s year as a public and nominally political figure was much, much worse. Which raises the uncomfortable question of who, exactly, he might be divorcing.
The A-lister formerly known as Will Hunting tried to be many things in 2017, all of them uncomfortably, none of them successfully. In February, he attempted a White Savior Action Hero move with the mega-budget American release of The Great Wall, an absurdly literal depiction of Hollywood’s awkward attempts to conquer China’s booming but volatile film industry. It didn’t make enough money in China, and made nowhere near enough money in the United States.
In October came George Clooney’s disastrous Suburbicon, which made way less money, and stunk. A 1950s noir based on a 30-year-old Coen brothers script, it sold itself as a nasty but fizzy upper-middle-class spin on Fargo—there’s Damon’s comforting everyman-as-Adonis face, pinched by clunky eyeglasses and artfully bloodied—but immediately revealed itself to be a profoundly ill-advised suburban-racism allegory. Nobody saw it, and most of the people who did would rather not talk about it.
But Downsizing might be the most disappointing of the three. If you’re invested in the movie industry’s long-term health, this is the sort of bonkers project you ought to root for: modestly budgeted and immodestly high-concept, with nary a superhero in sight. The premise—Norwegian scientists invent a way to radically, physically shrink human beings as a means of cutting down on environmental waste, though most of the resulting tiny people just want to laze about in dollhouse-sized McMansions—is both fantastical and, on paper at least, pretty fantastic. It’s a queasy thrill to watch a full-size medical worker gently scrape a teensy, fully shaved, and totally helpless Matt Damon off a gurney with a cute little spatula. But that thrill fades, and so, try as it might, does the movie’s momentum. A bored young couple in my theater walked out exactly at the moment when a glum scientist announced that the apocalypse was nigh. Might as well try to beat the traffic.
Three bold moves from Matt Damon this year, and three big whiffs. What do we want from this particular human at this particular moment? Do we want him heroic and triumphant, saving the whole of China from an armada of screeching mythological beasts? Do we want him sinister and amoral, an Eisenhower-era drone contemplating murder while deep in thrall to the Mob? Do we want him harmless and extravagantly humbled, a dazed human guinea pig brought down to size in as explicit a manner as possible? The answer to all three questions in 2017 was “no.” The volume, and the amount of carnage wrought by the fallout, varied slightly. But the message did not.
Damon likewise had a disastrous year on the interview circuit. It has been enormously dispiriting to watch him repeatedly shank the 2-foot putt that is responding sanely and empathetically to the allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Weinstein—all the more important, in this case, given his long professional relationship with Weinstein, starting with 1997’s Oscar-winning Matt-and-Ben supernova origin story Good Will Hunting. A blockbuster hit wouldn’t undo the damage Damon has done in attempting to confront this issue by serving up wayward musings about “a case-by-case basis” and “a spectrum of behavior”—not even close. But right now he’s flailing both off screen and on screen, which only magnifies the discomfort in both settings. He needs a hit; he needs an attitude adjustment. And not in that order. But he’d settle for that order, and so, grudgingly, would we.
Here’s some good news that is actually bad news: The Great Wall was the best Matt Damon movie of 2017. The CGI was voluminous, the premise both audacious and awfully familiar to Game of Thrones obsessives. (Terrifying mythical beasts assail the massive fortress at the northernmost point of a great, bygone empire, with Pedro Pascal as a wisecracking warrior sidekick and Ramin Djawadi handling the militant/mystical score. Winter is here; winter is everywhere.) Wuxia titan Zhang Yimou is the director; Matt Damon, as a roguishly charming mercenary with an exceedingly half-assed Irish accent, is the White Savior, schooling a hyper-disciplined Chinese army on the benefits of tough-guy cynicism, and bow-and-arrow party tricks, and also magnets.
Let’s settle on the words grudgingly watchable. “We really, really do smell,” a bedraggled and hirsute Damon tells Pascal after their first few green-screen battle royales, and when he re-emerges at a fancy banquet, freshly bathed and shorn and beaming, the allegory is overpowering. It is I, Matt Damon, movie star. Render unto me your boffo international grosses. The implication here—that only a white American movie star can carry a movie with global aspirations—is ridiculous, and triggered a great deal of thoughtful criticism based on the Great Wall trailer alone. “Can we all at least agree that hero-bias & ‘but it's really hard to finance’ are no longer excuses for racism?” tweeted Constance Wu as the prelude to a long, impassioned rebuttal. “TRY.”
Damon sought to fight back without seeming too combative. “Ultimately where I came down to was if people see this movie and there is somehow whitewashing involved in a creature feature that we made up, then I will listen to that with my whole heart,” he said at a New York Comic Con press conference after an early screening, protesting that critics were judging the trailer, not the full movie. “I will think about that and try to learn from that. I will be surprised if people see this movie and have that reaction. I will be genuinely shocked.” The good news that was actually bad news was that The Great Wall didn’t make enough of an impression—in American theaters, anyway—to sustain any sort of conversation, even an unflattering one. There wasn’t enough spark to it to truly shock anyone.
The less said about Suburbicon, the better. The verdict, from Rotten Tomatoes to CinemaScore, was grim, and the best you can say from the star’s perspective is that the director absorbed most of the damage. Even now, few can resist George Clooney’s charisma both in front of the camera and behind it, but in this instance he came off as a well-meaning but aloof Hollywood liberal a little too shocked by the revelation that American racism far predates Donald Trump. And anyway, by then, Damon had much bigger PR problems.
“Matt Damon’s Limitations Are Catching Up With Him,” went the headline to a late-October BuzzFeed piece written by Elisabeth Donnelly, which chronicled his struggles to adapt to the movie industry’s more recent, and far more complex, political issues. In 2015, on HBO’s aspiring-filmmaker reality show Project Greenlight, he unwisely sparred with longtime producer Effie Brown about Hollywood cultural diversity and representation, seeking to define it (and his potential culpability in it) as narrowly as possible: “When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show.”
Damon apologized for these remarks: “I am sorry that they offended some people, but, at the very least, I am happy that they started a conversation about diversity in Hollywood.” But his response to the Harvey Weinstein revelations and their widening aftermath has been especially dismaying, in large part because his connection to Weinstein is so indelible. Veteran reporter Sharon Waxman, writing for The Wrap shortly after the Weinstein news first broke, alleged that both Damon and Russell Crowe had personally pressured her to drop a 2004 New York Times piece she was preparing on allegations leveled against both Weinstein and an Italian Miramax executive named Fabrizio Lombardo. Damon insisted he was only vouching for Lombardo professionally: “If there was ever an event and Harvey was doing this … I would have stopped it.” But given his lofty status as an actor and charity advocate and outspoken progressive held up as among the best left-leaning Hollywood had to offer, statements like this ...
Look, even before I was famous, I didn’t abide this kind of behavior. But now, as the father of four daughters, this is the kind of sexual predation that keeps me up at night.
… can feel insufficient, and not a little clichéd. His more recent attempts to address the controversy haven’t exactly been warmly received, either.
All of this may not lead you to actively root against Damon in Downsizing, but he feels a little diminished even at regular size. Playing an affable Nebraskan occupational therapist with a solid-enough marriage and common-enough economic anxiety, he’s still plenty charming enough to come across as an everyman, even if the everyman role requires him to suppress most of his charm. He’s gone puffy and pale and hapless plenty of times before—see Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 comedy The Informant!—but that’s the sort of prominent lack of vanity that requires a goodly amount of vanity to begin with: Look how unattractive I can be and still entrance you! Whereas here, with just a slight paunch and slightly thinning hair and a mildly dazed demeanor, the effect is somehow magnified. He is at rest, but far from at peace. He doesn’t know what’s going on here any more than you do.
Downsizing is an odd mix of bone-dry humor and squishy earnestness, its sight gags (including a pair of monster-truck-tire-sized wedding rings) too few, its calls for human decency and dire warnings about climate change achingly sincere but not terribly dramatic. As with his other major 2017 movie, oddly enough, Damon once again plays a largely apathetic civilian whose potential is awkwardly unlocked by a far more vibrant costar: a fierce and fiercely noble soldier played by Jing Tian in The Great Wall, and in Downsizing, a saintly Vietnamese dissident played by Hong Chau. Both women do their part to save the would-be white savior; neither result, at least artistically, is an outright failure. But neither film is a win, and certainly not a win of the magnitude Damon needed to salvage his wan 2017 at the box office.
As the new year dawns, even his cameo in the upcoming Ocean’s 8 has drawn protests and petitions. It could be that as warm as our memories of Damon might be, and as adventurous as he’s proved to be in pushing his A-list status to wildly idiosyncratic ends, it is simply not his time, as either an actor or as a sociopolitical thinker. Another crucial lesson of the widening post-Weinstein fallout is that Hollywood needs more thought leaders, and better “good guys” far less willing to remain incurious about the industry’s supervillain apex predators. Damon is clearly capable of evolution, but he needs to either evolve or get substantially less tone-deaf in expressing his disinclination to evolve. Reprising his old Ocean’s role, however briefly, serves as a tacit retreat to a far more beloved character who ascended in a far simpler time. He’s going back to one of his greatest hits. But there are worse moves, clearly. And a step backward might still be, at long last, a step in the right direction.