Alexander Payne’s latest film is, in many ways, a very different kind of film from what its promotional campaign would suggest. In part, that’s because it is, in effect, three separate films, each of which relates to the other, but each of which is quite unique in tone and sensibility as well. The first of these bears the most resemblance to the film’s trailer, and takes place in a near-future in which a Norwegian scientist, Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) has developed a revolutionary procedure in response to overpopulation, the growing food crisis and decline in renewable resources. In effect, this involves shrinking people to a height of five inches, a process that has just started to gain traction in the United States as the film opens, where we learn about it through the eyes of Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig), a Midwestern couple who decide to join America’s first “self-sustaining community of the small.” As might be expected, that premise almost inevitably works to allegorise the decline of the American middle class in quite a literal and practical way, with Paul having initially wanted to become a surgeon (the film never bothers about Audrey’s dream), only to end up working as an occupational therapist for Omaha Knives. Still living in the home he grew up in, and having only just finished paying off his student loans, downsizing is a logical choice for Paul, who decides to go ahead with the procedure only for Audrey to back out at the last minute – and once he has already been downsized himself. Since the process is irreversible, he’s forced to build a new life amongst the small, eventually linking up with Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a downsized Vietnamese dissident in the film’s second act, before travelling to Norway with her in the film’s final act.
In many ways, the fate of Audrey’s character – and Wiig’s performance – is symptomatic of the atmosphere of this first part of the film as a whole. From the moment she appears, Wiig seems bleached and denuded, as if barely in the frame, and she disappears abruptly after her character decides not to downsize. At first, I wondered whether Wiig’s non-presence might indicate that she was playing against type, but on reflection that can’t be the case, not merely because the opening two acts of Downsizing are clearly intended to have a pcomic vibe, and partly because Wiig has often excelled in darker and more dramatic roles that retain a comic edge, such as in her extraordinary performance of suicidal ideation in The Skeleton Twins. Instead, it feels as if Wiig is cleared to make way for Damon, for Paul and, more generally, for the particular brand of milquetoast, “inoffensive” blandness that Damon brings to this particular role, and which Wiig’s angularity disrupts almost by virtue of her sheer presence. Once upon a time, this performance of everyman normality might have held sway, but in the wake of his comments about – and possible complicity with – the Weinstein revelations, there couldn’t be a worse moment for Damon to promulgate this kind of blandished and bemused screen persona. To be sure, it’s the same persona that drove Suburbicon, but where George Clooney at least presented it as a psychopathology, Payne somewhat blithely assumes that it still commands a general appeal, and a universal address, that it lost years ago, and that it has jettisoned even more abruptly in recent times.
All of that is to say that there is something inherent and oppressively white about Damon’s presence, Paul’s character and the film’s address, if only in that assumption of a uncomplicated universal address that’s only really possible – or uncomplicated – if you’ve been speaking from a position of privilege in the first place. Like so many other films and television series preoccupied with the fate and future of American whiteness, Downsizing takes the Scandinavian Midwest as a synecdoche and microcosm for the country as a whole, with the transition of the downsizing procedure to the United States effectively creating a more streamlined and homogenous Scandinavian Midwest – a Midwest that is a literal extension of Norway, and only possible thanks to Norwegian invention and innovation. To that end, Payne suffuses the downsized world with an especially Scandinavian taste for spatial comparmentalisation and functional modularity. While IKEA may be Swedish, it’s hard not to see the influence of the IKEA “look” in the American downsizing device, which is not only itself a downsized version of the original Norwegian device, but designed to appear more like a domestic household appliance than a groundbreaking scientific object. Some of the most memorable scenes involve Payne outlining this IKEA aesthetic, from the cursory way he bypasses the thornier questions around the technology (as with IKEA, everything aims to be transparent and uncluttered), to the use of kitchen appliances – such as enormous, man-sized spatulas – at critical moments during the downsizing procedure itself, both of which perpetually reminded me of Bjork’s wonderful confession, on Homogenic’s first track “Hunter” that: “I thought I could organise freedom – how Scandinavian of me!”
In the process, it becomes uncomfortably clear that downsizing doesn’t merely make people smaller, but also makes the world around them larger, even as it allows them to remove themselves even further from the political and economic realities of the world at large. It’s no coincidence, then, that the American downsizied community is known as Leisureland, since this quickly comes to feel like an IKEA furnished version of the leisure class, replete with high-end residences and endless conspicuous consumption constructed from balsa ply and gleaming white surfaces. At moments, it’s not unlike the gentrified afterlife of The Good Life, but devoid of the sharpness of that series’ satire, and the ever-present threat of the Bad Place, as you start to wonder whether this supposedly self-effacing community could even exist in the first place without larger people – people with a smaller world – to service and maintain it. No surprise, then, that the only person who questions the possible privilege and complex identity politics of small people – a drunk in a bar – is unceremoniously and arbitrarily shut down, since the film is hard to take seriously once you sense its supposed victims are enjoying their own type of privilege, even if it’s the privilege of enjoying the pathos of a decline narrative that simply isn’t available to their non-white peers and friends.
So explicit is this identification of the downsized community with white self-pity that I almost found myself wondering whether this was the point of the whole film. Certainly, it’s that oblivion to the way in which mourning middle-class decline can itself be a form of privilege that makes Leisureland feel like a form of racial purification, a way of sequestering and preserving whiteness against even the most precarious of economic futures. That’s a big thing to say about the film, no doubt, but it’s there in all kinds of details and touches whose sourness becomes more and more difficult to ignore as the screenplay drags on. For one thing, it’s clear that Payne’s version of the present, and the near-future, is defined as predominantly – if subtly – Hispanic, with Paul’s need to speak Spanish to his patients, and his drab routine at a workplace called La Casa, somehow seeming to be the final touch to his profound world-weariness. More explicity, it’s noticeable that there are virtually no downsized African-American or Hispanic people, despite a plethora of downsized Europeans who have already somehow made their way to Leisureland. Instead, the only downsized black people we really see are those who have been shrunk to assist downsized white people with the recovery process, while the film abounds with regular sized black folk at the other end of the downsizing procedure as well. Apart from that, we only glimpse a few actual downsized black citizens, and they’re nearly always presents as ornamental, blending into the background as just another facet of what makes this smaller life so exotic and odd.
I’ve often noticed, as I’m sure many viewers have, that Hollywood films will often place black people in administrative or service roles, as if emphasising their visibility only as conduits for the white drama taking place in the centre of the screen. In many ways, Downsizing is the logical conclusion of this process, offering up non-white bodies of every kind as catalysts and casualties to the profound self-pity and precious sense of melancholy that pervades every scene in which Paul participates, resulting in a second and third act that I found so utterly preposterous that part of me has to concede that I simply missed the point here, or was watching a different film from the critics who found something to admire. In the first of these, Paul discovers difference – there’s really no other way to describe it – through Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident, whose accent and part are so hokey that it’s a bit like imagining Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s being used as an object lesson in racial diversity and moral inagination. I suppose an accent doesn’t necessarily make a film racist, but it’s hard to feel anything else about the demands made of chau when situated in this particular film, in what amounts to a more dated and old-fashioned argument about multicultural “tolerance” than I ever thought I’d see again from a liberal Hollywood film. To make matters worse, it’s through this character that Paul “discovers” class consciousness, since Tran works for the invisible proletariat of Leisureland – workers who have been downsized to service the resurgent middle class – but the way in which the film presents this as a twist just makes it feel all the more tone-deaf to its own melancholy arrogance and self-pitying privilege, along with the myopia of its decline arc.
That self-pity culminates with the third act, in which Paul and Tran travel to Norway, where they discover that Dr. Asbjornsen, the inventor of the downsizing procedure, has realised that downsizing hasn’t been embraced rapidly or enthusiastically enough to preserve the world’s population from the climate catastrophe that is almost upon them. In place of a totally downsized world, he now presents a vault that he is constructed far beneath the earth’s surface, where he plans to house the downsized population for decades, maybe centuries, before they can return to remake the world in their own image, effectively re-emerging as a new species. On the face of it, that sounds like a fairly moving conclusion, and a timely intervention in all kinds of debates and anxieties pervading our planet at the moment. Certainly, too, there is a certain originality to Payne visualising and narrativising the tipping-point of climate change in such a sombre and introspective way, given how periodically – and programmatically – this point of no return turns to be eclipsed by the visual pyrotechnics of environmental disaster moves. Yet the register of melancholy and morbidity is so dour and drab here that this last sequence finally feels less about climate change itself than the enormous self-regard of the white middle class, with Payne now presenting that decline as a catastrophe of such global proportion that it actually requires the language of climate change to do it justice, even if it transcends climate change as well.
What makes this third act even more awful is that the oblivion to actual difference and the existence of others grows even more acute, with Payne continuing the main comic signature of the film – broad, goofy accents – by adding Norwegian to Vietnamese, along with a crude and hokey range of other intonations that are supposedly meant to testify to the film’s “multicultural” credentials. Worse, still, this subplot features what is meant to be the critical romantic moment with Chau – Paul creeping up and kissing her while she’s asleep – but which plays out, moment for moment, as a dramatization of everything that rendered Damon’s involvement with the Weinstein scandal suspicious, tasteless and scandalising in itself. Except that scandal is itself too strong a word for the blandness of these final moments, in which the film blithely equates white downward mobility with the end of the Anthropocene, and Paul decides to return to Leisureland, in a decision that’s presented as heroically misguided, but really feels totally predictable given his priorities across the film.
By the time he arrives back in the United States, it barely feels as if we’ve been in Norway at all, but that America has itself simply joined Scandinavia, brokering the massive middle class legacy of the European continent to produce the most radical – if radically conservative – vision of the Scandinavian Midwest that we have seen in the last couple of years. On his very first night in Leisureland, Paul exuberantly observes that “I’ve never been to a party like that – so many Europeans,” while one of his very first encounters with a Leisureland inhabitant involves a downsized white women smallsplaining her newfound freedom to a regular sized black man. Between those two gestures lies Downsizing, a film so strident in its melancholy conservatism that it made me question everything else I’d seen from Payne before this point, and question whether ever his most winning efforts were precursors to it.