Last night, I was flicking through Netflix and I wound up watching an indie noir film from 1996 called Hard Eight. I liked it very much, and one of its qualities that really struck me was how it’s able to make its central character enigmatic, yet interesting and watchable. This struck me because, after seeing Downsizing, it was nice to be reminded that it’s possible to centre a story around a character who is interesting enough to sustain a film’s runtime.
But I’m getting ahead of myself; the premise for Downsizing is really worth sketching out before we go any further, because it is a doozy. In a nebulous future, scientists have decided to combat global warming/overpopulation by creating a way to shrink people down to a few inches tall – a process which is especially appealing to the middle classes because, when you’re small, your money goes much further, and you can live like millionaires without ever working another day in your life.
That’s already an extremely fruitful premise for a satire on middle-class greed, the selfish side of human nature, a class warfare within a national economy and the folly of human responses to climate change, and we haven’t even gotten to the characters yet: and therein, oddly, lies the problem.
Matt Damon plays…Matt Damon. I wish I could tell you anything about his character apart from the fact that he’s an occupational therapist – a detail I would ordinarily forget, but it’s literally all we’re told about his character. Like his last film, Suburbicon, it feels as if the director decided that casting Matt Damon would be a serviceable substitute for creating a lead character with motives, goals, an interesting backstory, or any character traits to speak of. It leaves an irredeemable vacuum at the heart of the film that no high-concept sci-fi intrigue can fix, though the filmmakers try their best.
See, the film is 135 minutes, and it simultaneously feels at least 15 minutes too long yet also painfully rushed. Alexander Payne, a director whose previous work I’ve really loved (you owe it to yourself to see The Descendants and Nebraska if you haven’t yet), seems unable to weld the premise to a functioning storyline for most of the runtime. There are a painful number of ’x years later’ title cards which fracture what story there is, while superficially interesting tangents about economic realities, climate change and wryly misleading marketing are treated with the same gravity as character introductions and plot arcs, leaving the audience more bored than scintillated.
All of this serves to damn-near squander the film’s best asset: Hong Chau as Vietnamese dissident-turned-refugee (oh yeah, there’s a tangent about illegal immigration/oppressive governments which is painfully shoehorned in) Ngoc Lan Tran, a character so controversial that she has her own Wikipedia page. She speaks in a broken English dialect which, as well as considerably muddling the film’s tone, many critics found unspeakably offensive. I personally settled into it after a brief adjustment period, but I found the way she was written considerably more irritating. Though a lot of her narrative function is to attempt to provide Matt Damon’s ‘character’ with an arc, she’s often frustratingly well-written in her own right, with her altruistic nature balanced beautifully against her hilariously insistent personality and even her femininity and sexuality towards the end. It’s a star-making turn that sadly missed out on some well-deserved recognition at this year’s Oscars.
The most frustrating thing about Downsizing is that the good elements, like Chau’s performance, or the stellar production design that wonderfully conveys the slightly unsettling yet charming nature of the miniature world, only serve to foreground the flaws in such a scattershot script. It’s a thought-provoking film that’s beautiful to look at, but with such a meandering storyline and thinly-sketched characters, it never comes close to affecting your heart – even in a small way.