These days the term tone-deaf doesn’t apply to just the music perception. It also comes in handy to describe attitudes that are relatively insensitive, and Downsizing is, unfortunately, tone-deaf. When filming the Matt Damon vehicle, director Alexander Payne and his creative team appeared to have been blithely unaware of the cultural insensitivity on display in the film. Like so many other filmmakers in Hollywood, in Downsizing, Payne is singing that same old song of privilege enthusiastically and loudly, convinced he is hitting all the notes while the rest of us cringe in our seats.
**Minor SPOILERS Ahead – but nothing you don’t see in the trailers**
The premise, and the first third of the movie, is intriguing and funny: a scientific discovery allows people to shrink down to five inches and live like kings on a middle-class income. As a bonus, since they produce a tiny percentage of the waste they did before they “got small,” they get to claim that they are helping save the planet.
Enter Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who are in the market for a bigger life than the lower middle-class version in which they are stuck. After a couple that they know shows up “small” to their high school reunion raving about their fabulous new life, Paul and Audrey decide to take a tour of Leisureland, the most popular of the “small communities.” After a hilarious sales pitch by a Small couple (beautifully played by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern), they decide to take the plunge. Except Audrey gets cold feet after Paul has already undergone the procedure, leaving a dazed, confused, and miniature Paul to fend for himself in the tiny new world.
As an aside, Wiig’s Audrey was completely unnecessary to the story. It added nothing to the film and, like many aspects of the film, you’re left scratching your head as to why the filmmakers felt the need to include her at all.
The rest of the film is a mixed bag. Payne is an old hand at satire, as seen previously in films Election and Sideways. But Downsizing never achieves that balance of comedy, drama, and social commentary. Every time I thought I had a handle on where the story was going, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor would trip up, and I would end up feeling uncomfortable to be watching something so clueless and awkward.
Matt Damon as the hapless Paul wasn’t the best choice for our “everyman” character. This impression might have been exacerbated by his public statements in the last few years on social issues, which seem to resonate perfectly with the tone-deaf nature of the film. His naiveté feels forced and his “gee whiz” moments come off as a smart guy trying to make us believe he’s a dumb guy as a part of some scam.
In contrast, the normally over-the-top Christoph Waltz gives an unusually understated performance as Dusan Mirkovic, a shady member of the Leisureland’s 1% and of the Smalls cognoscenti who knows how to get what people want and makes them pay for it. He makes no excuses for his enjoyment of excess and no apologies for his place at the top of a class system that is in no way weakened by the shrinking process its citizens undergo. Waltz nails this character, coming off as a kind of Greek chorus to Paul’s journey of enlightenment.
The other performance of note is that of actress Hong Chau, who plays
Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident who is shrunk against her will, loses a leg, and winds up a member of the servant class in Leisureland. Because even in Utopia, someone has to clean the toilets, right? And of course, this class must be primarily made up of minorities.
Anyway, no doubt much will be said both of the character of Ngoc and of Hong Chau’s performance. As for the latter, Chau was easily the most watchable person on screen in every scene she was in and deserves kudos for her acting. But the elephant in the room is that Ngoc is little more than plot device, and is one long awful Asian stereotype. It is a shame that the filmmakers didn’t understand that it doesn’t matter how supposedly pure their motives, no matter how authentic the character of color is drawn, when those very characteristics are played for laughs it can legitimately be called racist.
On that, I did have an issue with the lack of PoC in roles of the haves versus the have-nots. They appear in the background of scenes featuring the upper-class like some kind of diversity scenery prop. I asked one of the writers why they had no lines, and he pointed out that Niecy Nash has lines…but I had to remind him that she played a salesperson. Her character doesn’t even have a name and is listed in the credits as “Leisureland sales person”. Definitely a have-not, yet he didn’t even see it. Aye, there’s the rub.
As much as the story of the film left me underwhelmed, the cinematography, effects, score, editing, and production design were outstanding. I’d almost be willing to watch it again just for the visuals and the music. But the film did seem to dwell on many of those visuals a bit too long, making the its two hour and fifteen-minute runtime feel longer. More time spent on some of the more interesting aspects of Leisureland’s lower-class lifestyles would have been an improvement.
Ultimately, I have no doubt that Downsizing will appeal to certain people not bothered by its tone-deafness. However, for those of us who would probably end up cleaning Barbie’s Dream House instead of living in it, the film strikes the wrong chord. In these types of films, it seems we always end up with the short end of the stick.
By DaVette See
DaVette See lives in Inglewood, CA with her husband, Rob, her mother, and her seven (yikes) kitties. She has a BA in English and Theater and a Law degree. When not writing, reporting, and video editing for BGN, she operates Running Lady Studios and produces animated shorts. She was a geek before geek was chic. She loves books, plays, movies, and more than anything, she loves telling stories.
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Originally from the Midwest, DaVette lives in Inglewood, CA and can’t name a single sports team. She’s a sci-fi fan, a movie geek, a drama freak, a Trekkie, and a Browncoat. She has a BA in English and Theater, as well as a Law degree, but don’t hold that against her. She acted and directed for the stage for many years, but really loves filmmaking and writing. She owns Running Lady Studios and she is the producer/star of the web-based talk show, Afro Bites! She is wife to Rob, daughter to Martha, and mom to seven (yes seven) cats. When not covered in fur, she’s a West Coast correspondent and occasional movie reviewer for BGN. Follow DaVette on Twitter and IG @mariavah.