It's a sad day when a dependable director makes a truly terrible film. Alexander Payne, who has an absolutely sterling record of making darkly comedic smaller films like "Election," "Sideways," and "Nebraska," decided to take the plunge into his first genre picture, based on a shelved script Payne wrote with Jim Taylor roughly a decade ago. And a first glance, "Downsizing" looks very promising.
It's a science-fiction story, heavy on the social commentary, about a near future version of our world where the technology exists to shrink human beings to under six inches tall. The benefits of "downsizing" include much cheaper cost of living and, theoretically, less resource consumption in an ecologically deteriorating civilization. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to go through with the procedure, and roughly the first third of the movie is seeing how they deal with the transition. Later, we're introduced to the downsized refugee activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) and playboy opportunist Dušan (Christoph Waltz), and the film explores how the miniaturized society functions in more detail.
I really enjoyed the first half of the film, where lots of fantastic worldbuilding is done, and we learn about all the ins and outs of living life as one of the Small. The impact on everything from living arrangements to travel to economic systems is a lot of fun to see in action. There are also many hints and allusions to the downsizing technology being used for more sinister purposes - Ngoc Lan was downsized against her will, for instance, by a repressive Vietnamese government. However, when the film gets around to fully exploring the ugly down sides of downsizing, it ends up stumbling very badly. While I can buy the idea that downsizing society ends up upsizing social inequality, the allegorical representations of this are just too hamfisted to be effective at all.
Also, we have to talk about the character of Ngoc Lan Tran. Hong Chau gives a winning performance in spite of putting on one of the most over-the-top, distracting, stereotypical South-Asian sing-song accents I've ever heard, and being given dialogue that is often just painful. There are some bits of conversation that are so cringeworthy, I couldn't believe that they had made it to the screen without anyone pointing out how bad they were. As glad as I am to see an Asian actress in such a prominent and memorable role, it really galls that it had to be such a caricatured one. Everyone else in the film is fine, with Matt Damon playing an everyman schlub, and Christoph Waltz turning in another charming European sleazeball, but it's hard to get past the Vietnamese elephant in the room.
Even at this point, with the dodgy social commentary and the obnoxious dialogue, I could have given the film a pass. Its intentions were clearly good, even if the execution was tone deaf. I admired the production design, the restrained use of special effects, and some of the film's smaller touches. I was happy to see Payne being ambitious, and trying something he never had before. He was trying to talk about social ills that nobody else was, and I find that very commendable. However, then we got to the last act of the movie, where the film abruptly shifts course and decides that it's been about Paul Safranek's search for personal meaning the whole time, and ditches about 90% of the material that it had set up in favor of an entirely different storyline.
And though I thought the new story was actually pretty good on its own, and would have been fine as part of a separate project, it completely derailed "Downsizing." If the film had been structured differently, had a stronger character arc for Paul, or figured out how to thematically tie the disparate pieces together better, maybe it would have worked. Instead, the result was a fatally disjointed film, full of wasted ideas and storylines that ultimately went nowhere. And there's no mistake that this is clearly the work of Alexander Payne, with his sense of humor and his filmmaking sensibilities. I'm left wondering how such a talented, perceptive director could get this movie so wrong.
Better luck next time, I guess.