Over his two-decade career, filmmaker Alexander Payne has returned again and again to his favorite satirical subject: the foibles of middle-aged white guys. With the exception of his 1996 debut Citizen Ruth, men have been the focus of this two-time Oscar-winner, who has a knack for analyzing their hang-ups, mocking their insecurities and sometimes feeling their pain. Often, men in his movies behave badly, letting their pride or anxieties get the best of them, although Payne often provides them with a soft landing. These guys aren’t all bad—they mean well, but often can’t get out of their own way.
In a movie year in which the most talked-about films have also been the most inclusive—Get Out, The Big Sick, Wonder Woman, Lady Bird—Payne’s mopey white men can’t help but feel a little passé: “Geez, another film about a middle-aged dude pondering his insignificance? What’s more to say?” His latest doesn’t entirely satisfyingly answer those questions, but it’s certainly his most ambitious—both in terms of its premise and where the film ultimately goes. The best anyone can say about Downsizing is that it shows Payne trying to push himself into new terrain. And the worst is that the movie finds him struggling to find new variations on his familiar themes.
The movie stars Matt Damon as Paul, who lives in a near future when science has made an incredible breakthrough: In the face of catastrophic global overpopulation, there is now a technology that can shrink people down to five inches. The implications are endless. Think of how much this will help overcrowding—not to mention reduce everybody’s food and clothing budget.
Excited about the prospect, Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to sign up for the procedure, which will mean moving from Omaha to a resort exclusively for miniaturized people known as Leisureland. The couple are understandably a little anxious, but it seems like a great way to reinvigorate their lives and relationship. Paul goes through the process and comes out unscathed, prepared to start this new chapter—only to learn that Audrey has gotten cold feet, opting to stay normal size and abandon her husband.
Heartbreak is a common refrain in Payne’s movies, but it’s not quite as central in Downsizing, which has a lot on its mind—ultimately, perhaps too much. He and longtime cowriter Jim Taylor haven’t just hit upon a clever idea but also given some thought to how it would play out in the real world. The introduction of miniature citizens creates a new kind of elite—it’s a pricey procedure, after all—but Payne really twists the knife when he reveals what Leisureland is like. Imagine the tackiest tourist trap—a faux-classy, ultra-artificial beachside resort—and you’ll have an idea of what awaits Paul. At the movies, we’ve encountered dozens of dystopian visions in recent years, but few are as cheerfully, chillingly banal as the one depicted in Downsizing. It’s frightening because it’s so corporately constructed—and then it’s even more frightening because the people who have signed up consider it paradise.
Payne grounds the proceedings in the same small-town modesty that’s always been a hallmark of his work. (Downsizing is easily 2017’s most blasé sci-fi film.) He’s operating on a larger thematic canvas this time, though. As Paul tries to navigate life as a miniaturized person without Audrey, he starts to unearth the less-savory elements of this seemingly squeaky-clean community. A minority underclass has started to form in the slums, while the richest, most obnoxious elites—especially Christoph Waltz’s playboy twit Dusan Mirkovic—treat their lives like one never-ending party.
This dichotomy digs at Paul, who in his previous life was an occupation therapist, taking care of others. Damon plays him with everyman decency—like a lot of Payne protagonists, he’s a bit milquetoast, sorta waiting around for his life to start. Once he’s at Leisureland, he threatens to drift away into its antiseptic hedonism. (The place is like a live-action version of Wall-E’s Axiom spacecraft with its endless, soul-killing conveniences.) But he rediscovers himself after meeting Ngoc (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist and amputee who has been shrunk against her will by the government. With her broken English and stern manner, Ngoc shows Paul the misery and misfortune going on around Leisureland, stirring his conscience.
To explain where Downsizing goes—and the risks Payne takes—would be to reveal some major spoilers. But let’s just say that while the filmmaker is again engaged in the ennui of a white male, he’s also after something more profound—the sense that everyone is seeking a better, more meaningful life, and that it may not make much difference in the grand scheme of things.
What hamstrings Downsizing is how Payne goes about that thesis. Chau gives a funny, low-key performance as a woman with very little sympathy for Paul’s sad-sack demeanor. He may have been dealt a bad hand by his wife, who left him behind, but it’s nothing compared to the hardships that Ngoc has faced. There’s poetic justice in Paul encountering someone like Ngoc, whom he’d probably have never met if he had remained normal-sized, but Payne patronizingly reduces her to a cutesy symbol of oppression. So many meaningful movies this year have given voice to such characters by letting them be the protagonists of their own stories, so by comparison Downsizing feels antiquated and off-key. Although Downsizing is often thoughtful, funny and poignant, ultimately it really is just another movie about a middle-aged white dude pondering his insignificance—with the added demerit being that he learns valuable life lessons thanks to a marginalized woman of color.
Surely Payne doesn’t mean this to be as offensive as it comes across. Ironically, Downsizing is about how dissimilar people who have all been brushed aside learn to come together, discovering that what they have in common binds them far more intensely than their superficial differences divide them. And so we’re left with a deeply humanistic film that’s also deeply flawed—a movie about compassion that doesn’t necessarily extend the same courtesy to all its characters. In this way, Payne and Paul are well-matched: They’re both trying to do their best, even if their aim isn’t always true.
Director: Alexander Payne
Writers: Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Release Date: December 22, 2017
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.