Main cast: Matt Damon (Paul Safranek), Christoph Waltz (Dušan Mirković), Hong Chau (Ngoc Lan Tran), Kristen Wiig (Audrey Safranek), Udo Kier (Joris Konrad), Jason Sudeikis (Dave Johnson), Maribeth Monroe (Carol Johnson), Rolf Lassgård (Dr Jørgen Asbjørnsen), Ingjerd Egeberg (Anne-Helene Asbjørnsen), and Søren Pilmark (Dr Andreas Jacobsen)
Director: Alexander Payne
No, Downsizing has nothing to do with losing one’s job. This is a fantastical comedy and the title refers to a process discovered by Norwegian scientist Dr Jørgen Asbjørnsen, which allows the shrinking of people and most living things into a fraction of their original size. A six foot eight person, for example, will be downsized into about five inches tall. The rationale for the process is that it allows the human population to use less natural resources and produce less waste, and hence we can minimize the damage to the environment and hence create a more sustainable ecosystem for future generations to thrive in. Provided it doesn’t rain too much and the mosquitoes aren’t too hungry, I’d imagine.
For most people, including our protagonist Paul Safranek, the allure of downsizing lies in how, now that they use far less resources, what was once unattainable to them due to cost – such as luxurious mansions – is now available for cheap. The marketing of downsizing emphasizes on gentrified communities living in idle luxury, after all, and Mark, who feels listless and unhappy in his “large”-sized job as an occupational therapist, is convinced by a downsized friend at an alumni reunion that the opportunities offered by the process will give him a new lease of life.
Alas, his wife Audrey changes her mind and decamps after Paul has downsized, and files for divorce a year later. He eventually befriends his playboy neighbor Dušan Mirković and meets the Vietnamese ex-activist turned house cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran in the process. When he tries to fix Ngoc’s prosthetic foot only to break it, he steps into her place and helps her do her rounds, and in the process, discovers that life isn’t very different whether you are downsized or not. Colored and ethnic minorities such as Ngoc live in downsized squalors, viewed only by the upper class as useful help and nothing more, and helping these people alongside Ngoc gives Paul a purpose. Alas, the world is ending – literally – and he must soon make another important decision about his life.
This movie wants to be a satire, but it flops face-down in attempting to do so. Watching this movie is like listening to someone who thinks that being cynical is all it needs to come off as profound and intellectual. The script tries to address the economic and political ramifications of downsizing – as long as there are “large” people, then those people will form the bulk of the working class that serves the wealthy downsized people, and the formation of downsized communities destabilizes the stability of various political, social, and economic fabrics of civilization; also, countries begin downsizing political dissidents – but only superficially. It correctly points out the cult-like nature of environmental activists that is, ultimately, selfish and self-aggrandizing holier-than-thou in nature, but at the same time, it also fetishizes these cult-like elements into something positive. The movie is quite two-faced in this manner. It claims to do something, but does something else entirely, and the end result is a mess of contradictions. And in the end, it offers no take home message, no answers, nothing. It’s that annoying bloke at the dinner table who keeps being contrary and argumentative just to get people to notice him.
The biggest misfire of Downsizing is Ngoc. This character is an irony-free portrayal of the emasculating Asian dragon lady stereotype: she bosses, pushes, and orders Paul around, showing little empathy or concern about him as long as he’s doing whatever she tells him to. And when he for some reason decides to fall in love with her, she uses his affections for him as another tool to manipulate him. She holds out on her affections if he dares to step out of line, and forces him to basically admit that if he loves her, he must do as she orders him to. Her final line to Paul is a “touching” declaration that he’s only “starting” to understand her point of view, and the movie ends with her forcefully slamming on the horn to get him to run back to her ASAP.
This, people, is portrayed as a good thing, as Paul’s love for this hateful, selfish bitch is supposed to be some kind of definitive character-building moment. I don’t buy this. The movie uses Ngoc’s activism as a justification of her heinous bullying ways, when she is just as sociopathic and heartless as Audrey. In many ways, this movie plays into the whole “if you’re a white man, you must feel guilty for your skin color and sex, and hence must atone by submitting yourself completely to the emasculating control of a woman of color” madness taking over most of the left-leaning people in the US and Europe, only it does so without any shred of intelligence or awareness as to how toxic such a mantra is. When it comes to Ngoc, I can understand why Vietnam forcefully downsized her, and if I were they, I would have cheerfully crush my booted foot onto that downsized rear end of a wretch afterward.
Anyway, the cast is on the whole superb, and I give Hong Chau a pass because her character is written to be the embodiment of a Hollywood liberal’s brain-damaged virtue signaling and she’s just doing her job. Christoph Waltz steals the show as the smarmy yet likable douchebag here, and Kristen Wiig makes the most out of a relatively small role, while Matt Damon holds his own just fine here. It’s a shame that they are wasting their time in a movie that has no idea what it is trying to say, but at least they get paid, I suppose, unlike me who paid to watch this dud.