So much of Alexander Payne’s recent work, and some of the older, practically fetishizes male self-pity: Sons putting up with crotchety elders, as in Nebraska; middle-aged men finally deigning to reckon with the fact that they haven’t been so great in the husband or dad department, a la The Descendants; depressed wine snobs behaving unbearably yet earning the love of smart, beautiful women—I’m looking at you, Sideways. Payne is often classified as a satirist, revered for his sharp, take-no-prisoners writing, but you could also argue that he’s built a career making facile movies about complex emotions. Sometimes he does little more than pack deadpan gags around thinly disguised sentimentality.
Payne’s latest, Downsizing, shows occasional flashes of those sorts of problems. But its tone is radically different from anything Payne has done previously: He’s more playful than usual, but also more thoughtful and somber. With Downsizing, he’s stretching toward something, instead of further contracting into the world he knows best. The movie is a surprise, the good kind, an instance of a filmmaker zigging just when you’re expecting him to zag.
The picture, which Payne wrote with his regular collaborator Jim Taylor, takes place in a not-so-far-off futureworld in which humans can be miniaturized. That’s a boon for environmental reasons—mini-people produce less waste—and for financial ones, too: Full-size dollars go much further when you’re only six inches tall. And so middle-class physical therapist and supernice guy Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), have decided to take the plunge and go tiny. Audrey yearns for a bigger house, which she can have if the two pour all their savings into a teeny McMansion at Leisure Land Estates, one of the new shrunken upscale gated communities that have sprung up to capitalize on the small-living boom. There, in miniature form, they’ll enjoy the life of leisure that the full-size world affords only to the big-and-rich.
The catch, of course, is that the process is irreversible. And after Paul shrinks down, his life circumstances change unexpectedly and dramatically. He falls in with a nouveau riche Euro-party boy (a very naughty, very funny Christoph Waltz) and his pals (one of whom is played, with louche charisma, by Udo Kier). And he meets a Vietnamese dissident and prison escapee, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), who lives in a community of the miniaturized forgotten, a slumlike environment that’s a far cry from the Leisure Land concept Paul originally bought into. Even when humans take up very little space, there are still going to be haves and have-nots.
Ngoc Lan has lost one of her lower legs, and her gait is awkward. Paul, knowing something about prosthetics through his line of work, thinks he can help her. But when he messes up the only faux leg she’s got—thanks, white savior!—she dresses him down and orders him around mercilessly. That’s when Cupid strikes. Ngoc Lan, bossy and forthright and filled with that thing we always want our woman characters to have (I suppose I have to break down and use that wretched word “agency”), is devoted to helping the people in her community, and she ropes Paul into helping out too. He’s so good at heart—and so smitten with her—that he really doesn’t mind.
What, exactly, is going on in this Alexander Payne movie? Where’s all the bitter, knowing wit? Payne has always known how to construct a movie, and Downsizing shows his typical careful craftsmanship. (The sequence showing the details of the shrinky-dink process is worked out meticulously and effectively; it’s also grimly funny.) But Payne has never shown this much warmth, or asked thorny questions with this much helpless frankness. Part of the secret may be in the casting: Damon is always likable, and he vests Paul—who’s extremely gullible, a bit of a schmoe—with a kind of plaintive anxiety. You fear the worst is going to happen to him, and you’re happy when it doesn’t.
But Chau’s Ngoc Lan is the movie’s boldest and most compelling character. She’s also its most controversial. Ngoc Lan cares for the people around her deeply, but she knows they don’t need her to be a martyr; her compassion is the resolutely practical kind. As Chau plays her, she’s both funny and direct, and as the movie goes on, she reveals layers we don’t foresee. Ngoc Lan, an immigrant, also speaks highly imperfect English. Because Downsizing was shown at several of the early autumn festivals, including Venice and Telluride, plenty of journalists and critics have had the chance to weigh in on it in the past few months, and some have deemed Chau’s character a racist stereotype because of the way she talk—no surprise, given how sensitive an issue representation in Hollywood is right now.
Movie characters are always other people’s children. We may love our own kids unconditionally, but a human created by someone else is always subject to our scrutiny and judgment—and our disapproval. Ngoc Lan is a carefully written character, and Chau—who has had roles in Big Little Lies and Treme—plays her beautifully. (Her performance has been nominated for a Golden Globe.) But the character’s mere existence has made many people angry, or at least unhappy. Is the problem that Payne, a white male, has written an Asian female character whose own experience he hasn’t lived? Would we be happier if he’d made a movie with no roles for women at all, let alone a woman of color? And who decides what kinds of roles are worthy of an actor like Chau? Should she not be trusted to make her own decisions? Chau’s own parents were Vietnamese refugees, though she grew up in New Orleans. She has expressed frustration over having to defend the character, and, by extension, her performance, to the journalists who have questioned her about it: “I have to sit there and explain to another human being why somebody who looks like me and sounds like my parents deserves to exist onscreen,” she told Vulture, adding, “If it’s well-written and well-performed, it can’t be a stereotype. It’s just a person, a complex human being.”
We go to the movies for so many things. Sometimes we want to see characters who are at least something like us. But often it’s the characters who are nothing like us that reach us most deeply. Who gets to write them? Who gets to play them? While we’re twisting ourselves in knots with these questions, we’re only losing out on what we stand to learn from entering a world that’s not our own—as creators but as observers, too. The negative response to Chau’s performance is disheartening for lots of reasons, not least of which is because it’s condescending to her. Downsizing shows us a world of people who have been shrunk down to size. Who needs science-fiction when we’re so good at doing that ourselves?