It's good to see that some things never change in Hollywood. The pay gap between men and women remains as wide as ever, powerful male executives continue to abuse their position and traumatise women working in the industry, and casual racism can still be mined for comedic laughs in a multi-million pound production. Alexander Payne's high concept, low laugh release, Downsizing, definitely makes the most out of that last Hollywood trope. In what proved to be yet another fallow year for comedies, it seems that returning to the good old days is the only way script-writers (in this case Payne and Jim Taylor) believe they can put a smile on people's faces.
Actress Hong Chau plays the role of Ngoc Lan Tran, a character whose comical pidgin English is repeatedly lined-up as the punchline. She is a political dissident once famous for sneaking into the land of the free inside a TV box. She managed to do so by downsizing, a concept created by Norwegian scientists searching for a solution to the uncontrollable pollution caused by mankind. By undergoing the procedure people can be shrunk down to a height of 5 inches and sent to live in purposely built miniature towns and cities. The start of the film quickly covers a 15 year span, showing the scientific discovery, its presentation to the world and the introduction of amiable Omaha residents Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig).
Struggling to finance a move to a larger home they visit the nearby LeisureLand miniature city. Those that downsize are treated as something of a freak show by normal sized humans, but the procedure offers more than only helping to save the planet. The procedure sees their asset value sky-rocket, offering a life of true luxury. Paul and Audrey sign up and get ready for a new, smaller, but wealthier way of life. A plot twist sets up the second half of the film which focuses primarily on Paul's struggle to find a purpose in this world and his relationship with trashy European playboy Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran.
Chau's character dominates the second half of the film and it’s hard not to cringe every time she is given a line of dialogue to deliver. True, the entire premise of the film is absurd, yet that offers no excuse for the exaggerated manner of her speech and the stream of cheap gags that roll off the back of it. Especially when the humour doesn't rely on anyone else's speech pattern. Ngoc lives in the slum part of this world on the other side of a giant wall filled with an entire housing estate of migrant workers. Like everything else in the film it's an idea barely touched upon and rather than do so, it relies on Rolfe Kent's bland, pitying score as some sort of Oscar bait war cry. Paul is the kind rich white guy concerned about the poor Asian lady with an amputated foot, while the Dragon Lady puts the concerns of everyone else above her own. And luckily for Paul, she can save him too.
Most bizarrely of all, after running through a number of terrible size jokes (look, it’s a giant pair of wedding rings! How silly, he's walking around carrying a giant rose!) the entire shrinking concept is barely discussed. Without the use of those horrible sight gags you get no sense at all that we are in tiny town. Questions are raised about the shrinking effect on the economy, the right to vote, taxes and healthcare system, but Downsizing casually discards those notions without so much as a second thought.
What starts out looking like a bizarre Charlie Kaufman-esque scenario, quickly reveals itself as an empty, no-joke, horribly ignorant excuse for a comedy. Damon plays Damon, Waltz plays Waltz and Udo Kier and Kristen Wiig are talents worthy of more than the short thrift they are given here (that’s without mentioning Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern). The visual effects used to place the 5-inchers in the 'big' world are also patchy at best. There are few, if any, redeeming qualities that can be said about Downsizing. It's a smug, middle class film enamoured with its own ideas about progressiveness and yet it still ends up creating one of the most crass caricatures seen on the big screen in quite some time.