4 Reasons you should never, ever watch ‘Downsizing’
Resident film buff Catherine Bridgman forewarns us against Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ (2017), and here's why... Warning - spoilers!
The other night I made the nearly-always-disappointing mistake of deciding I wanted to watch something ‘light’ because I wasn’t in the best of moods. Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and Hong Chau was a disaster that fails feminism, film-making and foreign accents. Here are the 4 primary reasons that you should never waste a moment of your life on this train wreck.
1. Straight up bad film making
It’s no spoiler to tell you that the premise of the story is that Matt Damon’s character Paul Safranek, and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), decide to ‘downsize’ themselves, involving a medical procedure that leaves the patients 5 inches tall. The benefits of this are that your money is worth WAY more and you’re also helping the environment cause you're consuming much less.
The trailer also reveals the main crux of the conflict: his wife backs out at the last minute, leaving Matt Damon as a pint-sized, lonesome figure, pining over his lost paradise in the tiny mansion that the two had pre-bought together. Some might argue that it’s a pleasure to behold, considering Damon’s recent attempts to explain to us all what sexual harassment really means, but this is pretty much where the interesting concept becomes a catastrophic failure of execution.
None of it makes any sense. Audrey and Paul are initially portrayed as nice people. Then all of sudden, Audrey is the devil-woman who leaves him without even having the courtesy to dump the man in person. Then they’re getting a divorce and Paul finds himself moving out of the mansion into a small apartment and working a telesales job that he hates. Are we expected to believe that Audrey has somehow legally managed to take way more than her share, considering her not-at-all-in-character behaviour?
Paul’s character alone is oddly inconsistent and has no discernible arc to speak of. Is he a good guy or not? What does he learn? It’s impossible to tell because he’s constantly doing things that don’t quite add up. One second he’s totally sympathetic, and the next I’m genuinely trying to figure out why he’s doing what he’s doing. The mind boggles.
2. The character that could have saved it all (kind of)
The would-be saving grace of this film is Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who is the sole survivor of a stowaway of downsized people in a TV box, an event that left her with an amputated leg. In her native Vietnam, Ngoc Lan had organised protests against the regime and was involuntarily downsized by her government.
She’s a disabled, woman of colour refugee who has had a difficult life and has a strong charitable character. She should be a triumph. But I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the portrayal of this woman, particularly from a film that has missed the mark in so many other ways. She didn’t feel as nuanced as her backstory added up to.
In fact, despite her part as the romantic co-lead, she still felt like the butt of the joke. Her accent alone felt like a caricature that verges on racial stereotyping. However, as a white woman with little knowledge of what a Vietnamese person speaking American English would accurately sounds like, I reserved my judgement until I’d read and asked around a bit.
Ngoc Lan is played by Thai-born Hong Chau, who says that the accent was drawn from her experience growing up ‘around Vietnamese refugees who don’t speak English as a first language’. Great! I was wrong and the accent that sounds ‘strange’ to me is actually accurate, right? Wrong. She goes on to say, ‘it is a heightened character, it’s not a documentary’. What does heightened mean, if not caricatured?
It’s a shame that this character should be done such a disservice by those writing, directing and acting her. I would love to see a version of Ngoc Lan in a better movie, written with a better part.
3. The eyes-closed kiss
My god, when will this utterly ridiculous, non-consensual trope end forever? If a woman is asleep, unconscious or unaware in any way that you are about to plant a kiss on her, particularly for the first time ever – DO NOT DO IT. It’s that simple.
I had already uttered aloud a number of times how dreadful I thought this film was, but at the moment when Paul kisses Ngoc Lan during a massage, in which she has either drifted out of consciousness or closed her eyes in relaxation, I found myself actually shouting at the screen in disbelief.
It’s not romantic, it’s not okay and writer-directors like Alexander Payne need to stop encouraging or condoning such behaviour in their work. Yuck.
4. It’s just not funny
The recent success of the Oscar nominated Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing Missouri is, in large part, to do with how it perfectly strikes the chord of being both genuinely funny and also tear-jerking.
Downsizing falls so miserably far from that, that it’s a gross, neutral nothing falling somewhere between comedy and tragedy.
Do not waste your time.