starring Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz
written by Alexander Payne & Jim Taylor
directed by Alexander Payne
by Walter Chaw Imagine if Tracy Flick, the energetic, demonic high-school overachiever in Alexander Payne's brilliant Election, were a Vietnamese exchange student, heavily and hilariously accented. That's one of the things wrong with Payne's excruciating downsizing, a film that takes his now-trademark twee misanthropy and mashes it up against this pretense of Swiftian social satire that sets the Sisyphus-like struggle of the bedraggled Everyman against a fatalistic backdrop of environmental apocalypse. It's a broad discourse on a lot of things: poverty and the failure of capitalism; the United States tearing itself apart along arbitrary class distinctions politicized into dramas of dominance and oppression. It's also about a filmmaker using science-fiction as a cudgel, swinging it about as disrespectfully as he does extreme racial caricaturing and destined to hold it up as a shield when whatever opposition comes rolling in to protest a film that mainstream publications out of Venice are already proclaiming some kind of contemporary masterpiece. It's like George Lucas all over again, but imagine if it were like Charlie Kaufman instead. For me, when you have an Asian character as problematic as Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a figure set up as both an object of derision and a holy relic, everything else is drowned out in that noise.
The premise is that Norwegian scientists discover a way to shrink people down to about five inches in a last-ditch effort to address the world's problems with overpopulation. Americans, being what they are, decide to do it when they decide to do it (only 3% of the world does it by the end of the film; the suggestion is that people are selfish swine who don't see the end of times when it's staring them in the face), because it allows them to multiply their income at a rate of $1000 for every dollar. Imagine living in a Barbie Dream House for the price of a Barbie Dream House. The "smalls" are put in walled-in bubble communities to protect them from insects and natural predation. When they travel outside of their compounds, they have to be carried by normals in glass terrariums and sit in special sections on buses and planes. Africans being what they are, the technology has been taken by warlords to shrink opposing tribal ethnicities; the Vietnamese being what they are, the technology has been used to punish political prisoners. One such political prisoner is the outspoken, one-legged Ngoc (shades of Payne's Ndugu from About Schmidt, who proves at the end of that film to be its warm salvation rather than just its running gag), a hero who has survived a perilous journey in an old TV box only to find herself a housekeeper in the American "Leisure City" colony. Think The Truman Show if The Truman Show starred Long Duk Dong. downsizing--even the title is a smirky bummer--actually stars Matt Damon as Matt Damon, er, Paul, a schlubby white guy who's probably not as socially sensitive as people think he is. An occupational therapist for Omaha Steak Company, Paul is married to long-suffering harridan Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Buried under the all-American crippling income-to-debt ratio, the couple decides to take the big leap and get small...and then Audrey gets cold feet.
The early parts where Paul retires to the basement in the middle of the night to worry over bills and crunch numbers into the small hours are familiar in a good way. Payne is at his best detailing middle-class desperation. The later parts--when Ngoc, a saintly philanthropist and a dragon-lady prime, lists off the "eight fucks" in Western culture (hate fuck, love fuck, friend fuck, drunk fuck and so on) in her plucky, adorable demand that Paul tell her which one "you give me? Love fuck o I tink pity fuck 'cause lraig"--are not Payne at his best. They are, in fact, Western culture at its absolute nadir and evidence, for all the talk of trying to redress the pain of representation for minorities in Hollywood, that when push comes to shove, this is where we are. downsizing isn't a satire of anything, it's an example by the fact of itself of how nothing is very different now from how it ever was. Maybe that was Payne's intention. If so, it flew over the head of every rich white person I saw this movie with, who couldn't stop laughing at the hilarious gook. To take the edge off it, Ngoc is also the very best person in the film, never complaining about the chafing and arthritis her cheap prosthetic is giving her while taking care of the entire working-class support slum right outside the settlement. In fact, the only reason I can discern that Ngoc is a heroic political prisoner of conscience is to make it okay that she's such a hate crime. If you're keeping score, consider that Ngoc is two distinct ways you shouldn't portray an Asian person: she's a ridiculous caricature of a dragon-lady archetype; and she's an industrious go-getter who teaches the lazy white guy the importance of watching out for your neighbour. She's an Amy Tan pastiche and Bagger Vance and there's no one laughing with her when she's doing her minstrel shit.
I will say that the whole settlement and its relationship to this sub-class is mildly intriguing because it appears to be based on the ending of Jim Thompson's The Getaway, in which our heroes go to a place in Mexico where they spend all the money they've stolen on luxury accommodations until they run out of cash and are kicked out and eventually cannibalized. The smalls liquidate their assets and become millionaires who lounge around their palatial manses. Once their money runs out, as Paul's does after a nasty divorce from the chiselling, honourless Audrey, Paul finds himself manning a Land's End help desk. downsizing relies on cheap shots like this that are for the most part more interested in landing blows on middlebrow tastes (though catering to them like mad) while not really explaining the economy of this place. If Paul's making minimum wage, in Little Town he's making the equivalent of like $10,000 an hour. Doesn't matter. What does matter is that downsizing is a movie that thinks it's smarter than you by a filmmaker who thinks it's all right to have this sort of Asian character as long as he cushions the racial slapstick with a facile, heavily-mocked liberal agenda. Trouble is, he's probably right.