Telluride 2017 Review: Downsizing is Alexander Payne’s Award Season Blunder
Alexander Payne is a filmmaker whom I greatly admire. My first introduction to Payne’s work began with Election back in 1999. Since then, I have gone out of my way to see every single film that he has directed in theaters, and each one has left a positive and lasting impression on me. As Downsizing begins to screen at various film festivals, just in time for award season chatter, I was ecstatic about getting my chance to see the film early. To my surprise, Downsizing not only opened up the Venice Film Festival but the Telluride Film Festival as well. This was my first year at Telluride, so I was excited to kick off the festival by seeing one of my most anticipated award season films.
In Downsizing, Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, an average guy living an average life. Paul works as an Occupational Therapist at Omaha Steaks and is married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Often labeled as the nice guy, Paul and Audrey dream of a life that is well beyond their reach. Determined to give Audrey the home she yearns for, they begin to look and apply for homes for bigger homes. Unfortunately, their application is declined due to their lack of savings. This leaves Paul and Aubrey feeling frustrated which inspires the couple to investigate this new lifestyle called downsizing which will ultimately give them the type of home and lifestyle they dream of having.
After meeting with some of their friends during a high school reunion, Paul and Audrey head to an orientation to check out Leisureland Estates and learn a bit more about the mass reduction process. During the presentation, Paul and Aubrey see how much they can get with so little. The idea of owning an entire diamond collection for only eighty-three dollars is enticing as is owning a mansion for only a hundred grand. After learning that their small savings would instantly become twelve million dollars in Leisureland, Paul and Audrey decide to take the risk and downsize their lives.
Downsizing starts off strong because there is this great concept about how downsizing the human population could help save the world while allowing people to live better lives. The first twenty minutes of Downsizing is rather clever as we learn about a Norwegian doctor named Jorgan Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) who has invented the new technology that can miniaturize human beings. This doctor has researched and tested this technology on a small group of people and has proved that his process is a success.
The concept of downsizing takes a while to catch on as one can expect but as time goes on more and more people see the benefits. While it was first introduced as a way to save the planet, most people who partake in the act of “getting small” do it so they can live luxurious lives in wealthy communities. The downsizing life quickly becomes a pretty popular option as it gives average people the chance to live the American Dream complete with a big house, expensive accessories, and pretty much anything else you can dream or want.
By the midway point of the film, Downsizing feels like two different films. The first half is all about the concept of downsizing, the benefits, and the marketing behind it to sell it to the American people. All of this is somewhat interesting to watch as Payne mixes in some social satire. The shift in tone occurs when Paul goes through the downsizing procedure. While I had minor issues with the film’s first act such as the lack of chemistry between Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, I found myself engaged and entertained. The second half completely lost me, bored me, and is beyond problematic.
Payne’s film attempts to address so many topics, but it does such a poor job doing so. He begins the film by addressing overpopulation and climate change but then keeps adding additional commentary. The film attempts to make statements about social class, the American Dream, immigrants, cults, materialism, the government, and so much more. This is a case of where Payne has bitten off more than he could chew and in the end, the film doesn’t have much to say other than “make good choices in life.”
The characters in Downsizing are almost cartoon characters with Matt Damon’s Paul being the only character that somewhat feels like a real human being. Damon tries to make the most of the material he is given, but I couldn’t help but feel like Damon just didn’t fully connect with this story. Paul as a person was hard to get behind because he was so dull and lacked personality. There are nice guys, and then there is Paul. I felt like Damon had no chemistry with anyone he was paired up with including Kristen Wiig and Hong Chau. Don’t get me wrong, Damon is fine at playing the “nice guy who finishes last, ” but he just didn’t seem too invested in this role. He seemed just to be doing whatever Payne asked of him, and therefore this is one of his more forgettable performances.
Christoph Waltz plays Dusan, Paul’s rich and successful neighbor. This character is just so over the top and ridiculous. Dusan often pokes fun at Paul by calling him pathetic and saying he doesn’t live life enough. Dusan makes his money selling products, and though how he obtains these items is somewhat questionable, he parties hard and just enjoys life. I get that Dusan is supposed to be this rich guy with not a single care in the world but the way that Waltz plays him is completely cartoon-like complete with Waltz’s creepy smirk that he gives Paul a few times through the film.
Kristen Wiig’s role is more like a cameo rather than a lead role. Wiig’s Audrey is there to help move the story along but the performance lacks gusto, and her chemistry with Damon is nonexistent. I initially thought that Damon was miscast, but upon thinking about it more, I think it was probably Wiig because she isn’t in the film all that much, but her role is rather important to the story.
Vietnamese refugee Ngoc Lan played Hong Chau is the character with whom I had the most issues. I felt like the character Ngoc was a creative outlet for Payne poke fun at his ex-wife Sandra Oh. Most people probably don’t know this, but Oh and Payne got divorced a year or so after Sideways was released. Payne then took a seven-year hiatus between Sideways and The Descendants. It was said that during this hiatus was when Downsizing was conceived and was supposed to be Payne’s next project which didn’t end up happening until after Nebraska.
While Ngoc’s backstory about how she was forced to downsize against her will and almost died while being transported in a television box is somewhat interesting and amusing, the rest of her performance is nothing of the sort. Payne paints Ngoc as this no-nonsense Vietnamese refugee that speaks the truth with broken English. I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for the simple fact that Payne turns her into a caricature rather than a character. Ngoc is such a stereotype that her performance comes across as downright racist at times.
To go a bit more into detail, Ngoc is a maid (also a stereotype) who cleans Dusan’s penthouse apartment (of course). This is where Paul meets Ngoc and recognizes her from the news. Paul notices that Ngoc has a prosthetic foot and offers to help fix it. This leads to a conversation where Ngoc believes that Paul is a doctor and insists that he comes back to her house to help her friend Gladys, who she labels as “very sick.” Paul doesn’t want to go because he’s not a doctor but being the nice guy that he is; he decides to tag along. He goes to the outskirts of Leisureland where Ngoc lives among immigrants and other minorities.
Paul helps Ngoc in picking the right medicine for her friend Gladys. Ngoc is relieved that Paul could help her, and then they begin to talk about fixing her leg. Ngoc says it’s too late and tells Paul to come back on Thursday. He comes back and accidentally breaks her prosthetic foot causing her to use a peg leg. Feeling sorry for making her situation worse, Paul beings to help Ngoc clean until she can get another foot. The two begin to see each other daily, and to no one’s surprise, they start having feelings towards each other.
Despite the character being poorly written, predictable, and stereotypical, it is the humor involved with her character that made me the most upset. The character is very much a racial stereotype. There are so many points during her scenes where the audience laughs not because of the dialogue itself but rather her delivery of the dialogue with broken English. Just saying the line “what kind of fuck you give me?” isn’t funny but the crowd went nuts because how Chau delivers the line. It is all done in such a racially offensive manner, and the joke just keeps going as she lists all the types of fucks “love fuck, pity fuck, friend fuck, etc.”
What makes this even more upsetting is that later on, Paul confirms it was a “love fuck” which appears to be poking fun at the language barrier between him and Ngoc but it’s still incredibly racist. If other critics want to argue that it isn’t racist, that is fine but let’s agree that these types of jokes are cheap. In all honesty, I found most of the humor in Downsizing to be not as sharply written as Payne’s previous films. Some jokes are just so simple and obvious like “look at how big this rose is” or “wow, that’s a big package of saltine crackers.” There is also this lazy run-on joke about how no one can pronounce Paul’s last name. I didn’t think it was funny the first time, yet it pops up at least three more times throughout the film. In all fairness, almost all of the jokes throughout the seemed so juvenile which is very out of character for Payne as a writer/director.
Downsizing was a passion project for Payne, so I can’t help but feel even more disappointed by how poorly the film turned out. There are honestly two different films here and the second one is almost unbearable to sit through. I love the concept, but the film goes nowhere with it. I would have loved to see a 90-minute film about the pros and cons of downsizing but what I got instead was this unfunny and preachy satire without any interesting characters. I cannot believe Alexander Payne made this film and it is without question his worst film to date. I won’t write him off because everyone makes mistakes now and again, but I can’t hide the fact that Downsizing is such a letdown and such an award season blunder for Payne and Paramount.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s rating for Downsizing is a 4 out of 10.