I’m not sure this was the intention
Matt Damon (left) and Jason Sudeikis (right) in new comedy ‘Downsizing’
This year’s Toronto International Film Festival was likely a bit of a slog for Matt Damon. At the very least, I can say it was difficult for me to watch his pair of high-profile entries that arrived like anointed gospels from the heavens. He top-lined “Suburbicon,” George Clooney’s adaptation of a long-gestating Coen Brother script from the late 1980s. That one bears the distinction of being reminiscent of “Fargo,” their Academy Award-winning dark comedy that, let’s be honest, is as black as starless space.
“Suburbicon” explored the seedy underbelly of the early 1950s suburban mindset, the rotten soul behind the lily-white façade, with Damon as a husband willing to go to great lengths to extricate himself from his unhappy marriage, while the neighborhood showed its true colors to the new black family moving in. Clooney added the racial subplot, in response to the shifting social and cultural tides in the post-Obama Age, but it was handled clumsily, which raised my critical hackles. (Black America is not ready for more portrayals of proud upstanding folks who turn their bloody cheeks, Mr. Clooney.)
Things didn’t get better for Damon with “Downsizing” either. Writer-director Alexander Payne, so sly and culturally sharp in films like “Election” and “Sideways,” has a really twisted idea in “Downsizing,” which I’m sure seemed quite promising on the page. What would it be like to live in a world where biotechnology reached the point where people could be shrunk down to five inches and live in enclaves where their use of resources and production of waste could begin to reverse our bleak forecasts concerning over-population and the impact of our current carbon footprints? And how ironic would it be if we could redefine the notion of “downsizing” from corporate cost-cutting of human resources to a quaint sense of living life small?
That’s how things kick off for Paul Safranek (Damon), a man with no significant ambitions or experiences of value in his current situation. He’s married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), and they toil away at jobs that don’t offer fulfillment or meaning, until Paul realizes that he’s not living up to his potential. So, after a chance encounter with a high school friend (Jason Sudeikis) who went small, through downsizing, Paul seeks to convince Audrey it might be right for them.
You can tell from the start that Paul is a hapless fool, a little guy long before he undergoes the shrinking procedure, and to be honest, he’s more than a bit of a bore. When Audrey backs out, leaving him to begin this pee wee adventure on his own, you might find yourself wishing you were stuck with someone a bit more outsized in his personality and take on life.
Enter Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), Paul’s neighbor in his new downsized community. Dusan embraces his sense of privilege and indulges in any and every treat that comes his way. He gloriously experiences the finer aspects of the tiny world and shows us the potential of a big-balling experience. Waltz exploits his dry European charisma, the droll delivery, and ominous edge that has earned him a pair of Academy Awards in Quentin Tarantino films (“Inglorious Basterds” and “Django Unchained”), but here, a softness emerges. He invites us into his inner circle, where his charm burns away any of the Tarantino menace.
Damon has none of that to fall back on, because, as written, he’s supposed to embody the worst sides of American privilege, entitlement without consciousness or a desire to care about anyone (sadly, not even one’s self). This emptiness sets Paul up for a journey of self-discovery that will bring him face-to-face with a woman (Hong Chau) trapped in a downsized existence that no one would ever mention in the bright vacuous promotional materials.
And so, “Downsizing” becomes yet another story about a white male protagonist who gets redeemed through his interactions with a person of color who guides him along the way, opening his eyes to the real world. Oh, please.
Making matters worse, Damon has come to be the poster-child for bland, all-American ideals. He’s tried and true, a square-jawed nice guy who actually seems a little out of step with the plight of folks on the other side of the red carpet. I like him best in the “Bourne” franchise where he has few lines, nothing to smile about, and no purpose other than to pummel his way through the global-capitalist power structure that he was bred and trained to protect. He’s a far more politically motivating figure and symbol in those films than in roles where he’s supposed to toe the party line.
Surrender your privilege and be free, Matt Damon. That’s your only chance to be all you can be.
Rating: PG-13; Grade: C-