Editor Xin Yi Wang reviews Alexander Payne’s recent venture into sci-fi comedy.
The concept of Downsizing is intriguing. An original premise about shrinking communities in order to reduce environmental waste and depletion, it seemed as if we had a film on our hands that could have been sharp sci-fi satire with a breath of fresh air. The concept unfortunately does not translate well into words, nor does it successfully achieve what it set out to do. What audiences have ended up with is a fun but jumbled piece with no idea if it’s supposed to be 1) an environmental parable, 2) a critique on society, or 3) a character piece. Sure, a film can be all three, but Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) has failed to balance them out, going into one direction before jarringly switching to another. Its runtime of two hours and fifteen minutes does not do it any justice either.
Payne sets the scene by establishing the technology slowly making its way from conception, to implementation, to its encounter with Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Taking a chance to start a new life while saving the environment, they agree to undergo the new shrinking technology and move to the popular ‘downsized’ community Leisureland, only for Audrey to opt out last-minute. Paul is left alone, befriends with his eccentric neighbour Dušan (Christoph Waltz), and meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist shrunk against her will.
The film spends way too much time on set-up, and Wiig’s character ultimately does not serve enough purpose to justify her character’s inclusion at all. Why? For a quick plot twist? To develop Damon’s character and be the cause of his downsizing regret? Surely there are more and better ways to do that without wasting an entire character. Wiig is essentially a glorified cameo, never to be seen again after we follow Paul into Leisureland – Leisureland, where Downsizing really begins. Actually, no – Downsizing really begins after Ngoc Lan is introduced (almost halfway in), which really highlights how much unnecessary set up has really been put into the film.
Even so, the character of Ngoc Lan is a problem. On one hand, she represents a layered and nuanced Vietnamese refugee, her experiences contrasting the upper-middle class, majorly white community of Leisureland. A character forced into downsizing, her existence proves a counterargument to the claimed purpose of this technology and the perception of Leisureland by Paul. There is no dispute that against the likes of Damon and Waltz, newcomer Chau absolutely steals the show and easily upstages the both of them with an excellent performance. With only six entries in her filmography – and Downsizing her second feature film after a small supporting role in Inherent Vice (2014) – she is a revelation, showcasing strength and determination in both the character and her confident performance. It’s really a shame she’s not the protagonist of the film. She ought to be.
On the other hand, however, Ngoc Lan’s exaggerated accent and broken English are at times used for laughs and cringe humour, treading the fine line between an authentic refugee character and a racial caricature. It’s not about how an accent exists – as a refugee from Vietnam, not having perfect English fits her identity and acts as an example of the difficulties refugees face when trying to assimilate into a country and language that is foreign to them. Yes, accents become associated to prejudicial racial assumptions, but this is subverted by Chau and the strength of writing in the character, who becomes more or less the actual hero of the film. The danger arises when the broken English is used for punchlines, such as the line “Was it a love-fuck?” during an emotional moment. As a comedy, humour is played frequently and well, but was this really necessary, or was it an over-exaggeration of the reality faced by immigrants and refugees over language barriers? Of course, it doesn’t take away from Chau’s performance as it is more of a script problem, but it is a problem within the film that should be addressed.
As the film progresses, Payne seemed to realise that Ngoc Lan is far more interesting than Paul, and Downsizing shifts from what was building up to be a character piece focused on Paul (and his regret about downsizing, his disillusionment with his life, the new perspectives from Ngoc Lan) to her. Which could have been great, considering she is the driving force of the film – particularly compared to Paul’s mundaneness – except that Payne, having wasted all his time building up to Paul’s struggles, first meanders into Ngoc Lan, then seems to realise he’s unsure about that and goes back to Paul. It becomes confusing – either start with Paul, commit to Paul, and end with Paul, or start with Ngoc Lan and end with Ngoc Lan.
The product’s lacking confidence here is given an even weirder aspect in the final act, when the environmental parable returns. It drives into bizarre territory, suddenly going for a grand narrative instead of character focus(es), shifting in tone as the film remembers that it’s supposed to also be an environmental satire. Here, concepts of the end of the world and starting new human colonies from scratch arise out of nowhere, while giving no reason why our characters are involved in this. Instead of the subtle criticism in the first two acts, Payne doses the final act with an overload of satire on society. Is it earned? Where is the coherence?
Not to say the film has no merits. It is overall good fun and an enjoyable ride for the most part, with laugh-out-loud moments mixed well with more tender and serious scenes. Humour is its strong suit, from Damon carrying a huge or “normal-sized” flower as a party gift to the very nature of downsizing itself, and the second act is solid. Damon is fine as the middle-class everyman, bringing in the usual charisma you would expect from Matt Damon. Waltz is also memorable, and together with Chau plays the foil to Damon’s everyman in a different way – he does take the back seat by the end of the film, but nothing unexpected.
At the most basic level, Downsizing is decent. It’s a shame that it held so much promise with its premise and cast, only to struggle with what it’s trying to achieve and failing to mix concepts together. I would have preferred to see Black Mirror tackle the technology and deliver on a tight-knit satire in under an hour instead.
Downsizing came out on January 24th in the UK and is now showing in cinemas. Trailer below: