As someone who works in the theatre, I’ve always prided myself on being an excellent audience member. I know what it takes to get up on that stage and bare a part of yourself for a baying crowd, so you better believe that when the shoe is on the other proverbial foot, I’m going to sit there and be as spiritually supportive as I goddamn can be. I’ve been front and centre and beamed with pride and affection during truly terrible shows, sending out as many positive vibes as I possibly can, because no one wants to catch a glimpse of the people they’re working their ass off to entertain and see nothing but a collection of assholes sizing up the exits.
Now, granted, things are different in a cinema, where the actors aren’t sweating and spitting mere metres away from you. And yet, it was still surprising to me when about an hour into Alexander Payne’s latest torturous exercise in condescension, ‘Downsizing’, I realised that my face had contorted itself into an unmoving mixture of contempt, disgust, exasperation and, well, I guess the correct terminology would be “burning fiery hatred”. Though I made a concerted effort to relax my straining facial muscles into a more neutral arrangement – preferably one that wouldn’t leave me prematurely needing Sharon Stone’s nefarious anti-aging cream from ‘Catwoman’ (up-to-date reference alert) – it was only a matter of minutes before yet another moment of dumb, mildly sexist, dismissively racist, self-congratulatory bullshit occurred on screen and slapped that same unimpressed look on my face. Because, to put it bluntly, this film is offensively bad.
As the near inescapable trailers and ads have no doubt screamed at you by now, ‘Downsizing’ is the story of Matt Damon’s Paul Safranek, an average guy living in a world where a procedure that shrinks you down to 0.0367% of your body mass (basically, so you’re about five inches tall) has become so commonplace that entire tiny villages of McMansions are popping up all over the place. Sure, it’s good for the environment, but the main appeal lies in its ability to multiply your assets to an exponential degree, turning thousands into millions with just one quick, easy, irreversible procedure. Needless to say, Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to explore their options.
Though initial stretches show faint glimmers of amusement, whether it be through the calm absurdity of the procedure itself or the endless stream of cameos from consistently wasted performers, the flickers of enjoyment here are few and far between. In what seems to be an unfortunate trend that’s developing over the director’s oeuvre, from the careless misogyny of ‘The Descendants’ to the condescending caricatures of ‘Nebraska’, this latest offering from Payne smacks of the worst kind of liberal racism and sexism. Wiig’s character makes an abrupt exit early on, deciding she can’t go through with the transformation for hideously superficial reasons, boiling a major character decision down to because she’s a silly woman. At no point are her objections taken at all seriously, which is when you begin to realise that at no point are any of the women in this film taken seriously at all. They are jokes, there to embody the worst impulses of the capitalistic hedonism that Payne so clearly scorns, or to simply cause trouble for the men and get in the way of their precious journeys of indulgent self-discovery.
...‘Downsizing’ commits the cardinal sin of being a satire that doesn’t even know what it’s actually satirising.
But don’t worry, because the film also has Something To Say about race and class, as the only other woman the film seems to have any time for is Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist who was shrunk against her will and smuggled into America in a TV box, losing a foot in the process (I’m only now getting that that could have been an attempt at a pun. I am not amused). In any case, Chau is the lone bright spot in this patronising excuse for a film, in a role that should have been its most problematic aspect. Speaking in broken English through a "comically" thick accent, and bossing around Paul as she forces him to help her bring food and medicine to people who, unlike him, are actually suffering, Chau commands the screen and steadfastly refuses to let Ngoc Lan be anything less than a genuine, heartbreakingly empathetic presence in a film that in no way earns or deserves her hard work. Worse still, the film seems to be constantly trying to undercut her, as even in her two standout, openly emotional moments, it keeps attempting to spasmodically jab at some horrifyingly misguided comedy, to the point where I’ve never been so disappointed in my fellow audience members for continuing to laugh at an otherwise funny character.
Even without its viciously uncomfortable treatment of women and minorities, ‘Downsizing’ commits the cardinal sin of being a satire that doesn’t even know what it’s actually satirising. One minute it’s taking aim at middle-class opportunism and economic desperation, the next it’s an apocalyptic meditation on man’s failing of the environment. And they’re just the bookends – in between those two poles are a series of thrown together concepts and discarded ideas, any of which individually would have made for an intriguing premise for the film. But, instead, we have this. An unfunny, unilluminating, caustically toothless, visually uninspiring and intellectually facile attempt at mansplaining the world’s problems, made by someone who seems to have about as much interest in them as the pathetic characters he simultaneously hates and yet can’t seem to bring himself to actually criticise.
Oh look, I’m making that face again.