Alexander Payne makes big mistake with small story in 'Downsizing'
Director Alexander Payne got our votes when he offered a brilliantly satirical look at politics and popularity with his insightful high school-based comedy "Election." He showed with "Sideways" that he could present a story as firm and dry as a prized red wine.
He's done neither with his latest offering, "Downsizing." All the Oscar-winning filmmaker has shown with the production is how he came up short whether trying to make social commentary, dealing with political satire or attempting just to be funny. The film is a massively muddled mess of ideas that might have made more of an impact if Matt Damon's performance wasn't so painfully bland. It probably wouldn't have mattered with another actor, but it sure couldn't have hurt.
The downsizing here has nothing to do with the cutting of employees that seems to have become a favorite corporate pastime. In this case, it's very literal. A Norwegian scientist has discovered a way to shrink a person who is 6 feet tall to 5 inches. A world of Lilliputian-sized people would put less strain on the ecology and be a financial boom because houses, cars, food, etc., would all be so small, a person's personal wealth explodes to gargantuan size.
After living a life of mediocrity, Paul (Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) Safranek decide to spend the money to be downsized. Things don't go as planned, and Paul finds himself living a miserable existence in the tiny world. It gets worse when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was shrunk against her will as punishment for her protests. Now she cleans up after the rich and famous.
There are multiple places where the film appears to be ready to take some kind of stand but then crumbles in indecisive writing. Just before Paul and Audrey go for their transformation, they are confronted in a bar by a man who wants to know why people who are only 5 inches tall should have the same right to vote as normal-size people. His argument is those who have been downsized are spending less and killing the economy. Debates on the bigotry of this thinking could have filled the movie, but Payne brushes it off with little discussion.
And the idea the small population is hurting the world economy makes absolutely no sense. Yes, they can make one steak last for a year, but there has to have been a boom in miniature technology, since all the residents have cars, TV sets, tables, clothes and any other item a full-sized person would need.
It's the off-target way Payne presents Ngoc that provides the film's most brutally bad moments. Instead of making her the focal point of the idea that size doesn't matter, the director strips away any power Ngoc might have by making Chau play the character with an accent in which every word she speaks sounds like a cat dragging its claws down a chalkboard making a baby cry while a car alarm goes unattended.
It's not the accent that is so disruptive. It's the way Payne has directed Chau to deliver the lines. The delivery is so mechanical that Chau's range of emotions go from annoyingly angry to obnoxiously irritating. This comes across as even more painful to watch because Damon shows so few genuine emotions as he gets verbally smothered by Chau.
The only person who looks to be enjoying the process is Christoph Waltz, who plays Damon's noisy neighbor. He's loving the small life and has even found a way to make it financially work for him. It's such a pleasure to get to see Waltz play such a character who is so in love with life, since he so often plays the dark antagonist.
Payne's main theme is there will be haves and have-nots no matter what size the population. Chau's character should have been the spokesperson for a small community that has been reduced to struggling to find food. Even that world is so poorly presented that the movie shows a darkness that isn't part of the story.
The idea of there always being a class system would be far more realistic if Payne had not made the poor and downtrodden only minorities. There has to be at least one or two white people who had problems and ended up on the wrong side of the wall. But, by showing only minorities, Payne has turned this element into a heavy-handed slap in the sociological face.
"Downsizing" needed a smarter and lighter touch to make it a rich satire. But that doesn't happen. Or Payne could have just gone full-blown sight gags and made this a broad comedy. There are a few funny bits of physical humor, such as the moving van of mementoes, but the moments are way too sparing.
All the problems flow back to Payne, as he not only directed the mess but co-wrote the script with Jim Taylor. The film has more big effects and visual elements than anything Payne has directed before, and it looks to have been a distraction. What should have been his next big movie ends up being a project with little to say.
Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz.
Director: Alexander Payne.
Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Running time: 135 minutes.