Alexander Payne has things on his mind: global warming, mass consumption, white privilege, liberal guilt, irredeemable women, redeemable men, and the gut-busting humor inherent in a Vietnamese refugee speaking in pidgin English. All this—and Udo Kier, too—is stuffed into Downsizing, Payne’s I-guess-you’d-call-it-ambitious sci-fi satire about a world where people who want to make less of a global footprint can literally shrink themselves.
That’s in conception, anyway. In execution, proposes Payne, even a miniaturized human race will quickly fall back into their old wasteful, discriminatory habits. Give the filmmaker credit for the first 40 minutes, which intriguingly lay out the world that such a monumental scientific discovery might create. Our on-screen surrogate is Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an amenable guy who works as a low-paid corporate medical consultant, and who hides his many personal disappointments behind an aura of lovable schlubbiness. Then the opportunity to go small presents itself, and Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to explore their options.
These are Downsizing’s best scenes because Payne, co-screenwriter Jim Taylor, and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael imaginatively visualize the process by which a person might get tiny. You have to have all your dental work undone, as an example, because fillings don’t shrink and your head would explode. At one point, the filmmakers deliver a sublime visual gag in which a room of freshly miniaturized people are transferred to tiny stretchers by towering nurses holding disinfected spatulas. (Props, as well, to a gag featuring an oversized Saltine.) But then, without spoiling too much, Paul and Audrey’s plan to live a blissfully Lilliputian life together doesn’t pan out.
Wiig’s exit from the narrative has a vindictive, sexist tinge to it, and Downsizing curdles from there. Payne, however, appears to think he’s making some kind of grand statement. So you just sit back and marvel at how his reach continually exceeds his grasp. The most egregious offense is the character of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a downsized Vietnamese woman who smuggled herself into the United States in an HD television box and lost part of her leg in the process. Now she spends her days cleaning the houses of the pint-sized rich, and living in a pocket-sized, primarily Hispanic shantytown on the edge of the luxury community that Paul inhabits. She is Paul’s tart-tongued angel of mercy, effectively the Payne-directed About Schmidt’s African orphan boy Ndugu made flesh. It’s as bad an idea as it sounds, in no small part because of the ways that Payne and Taylor undercut Ngoc’s sincerity with cheap-shot gags about her accent and heritage. (Her “what kind of fuck you give me?” monologue is some kind of cinematic nadir.)
No surprise, though, that Payne is also scornful of the rest of the world, from the utopia-minded Scandinavian scientist, Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), who creates the downsizing process and lives long enough to see it used and abused, to the Eurotrash playboy, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), who befriends Paul and demonstrates just how exploitable this new state of the human race can be. And the inimitable Kier shows up as Konrad, Dusan’s good German buddy—primarily, it seems, to say “Lake Titicaca” (I laughed, I admit).
Payne’s defenders might call his often acidic touch Swiftian, though it comes off more toothlessly noncommittal, as in a sequence in which Jorgen builds up an earnest head of steam while making a mankind-must-endure address and it proves to be mere prelude to a lousy punchline about oral herpes. The conviction of the scene is undercut with one quick stroke, as are the people on screen. They’re no longer the heightened symbols of humanity that Payne intends (which would make the satire land with much more force) but half-assed cartoon constructs defined purely by their reductive surface traits. Perhaps Payne’s aesthetic approach—to life, the universe, and everything—really is that simple-minded. It’s certainly painful to watch him think.