Goddamn It, Matt Damon (A 'Downsizing' Review)
What a year it has been for Matt Damon. He began 2017 by fronting The Great Wall, a big-budget, spectacle-rich epic from celebrated Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou. But ahead of its opening, the film was accused of whitewashing, and was critically panned. It tanked domestically. But no worries, Damon was headlining two more intriguing movies from admired directors. But then, the George Clooney-helmed Suburbicon took an old Coen Bros script and sloppily stapled it to a real-life story of suburban racism to create a tedious and controversial crime comedy. Critics weren’t laughing, and audiences steered clear. And now we’ve come to Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, a comedy that uses a sci-fi premise to deliver an eye-roll-worthy hot take. But misfired movies weren’t Damon’s only trouble this year.
As Oscar night approached, Manchester By the Sea producer Damon threw his star power and megawatt smile into Casey Affleck’s campaign, helping the would-be Best Actor dodge fallout from allegations of sexual harassment. Damon also drew side-eye for his defense of The Great Wall. Now to be fair, putting a white movie star in a Chinese epic about the fictional, monster-studded origin of the massive landmark is not technically “whitewashing.” But it was Asian erasure. His casting sent the message that it wasn’t interesting enough to have Chinese people starring in their own story, opening the film up to the White Savior criticism. But who could blame Damon for wanting to work with Yimou? The filmmaker is a lauded visionary. So maybe you ignore the less-than-woke politics of it and just dive in, right? The problem is this wasn’t a blip. Damon’s troubling takes just keep piling up.
As Hollywood trembled over the Weinstein revelations, Damon began rolling out bad takes, then worse takes, then all the worst takes. He marched out “as a father of daughters,” as if the only reason men might care about sexual misconduct is that it could happen to their precious little girls. Forget that men are victims too. Forget that women are people, which should be enough to muster empathy. With waves of these stories coming forward, many of us are facing questions we might never had to imagine before. And understanding rape culture is a process. So, you might even be able to excuse him, “That’s not a great response, Matt Damon. But I’m hoping you’ll get it soon.” But then, just days ahead of me seeing Downsizing, Damon delivered a dizzying array of hot takes on the sexual scandals of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Al Franken, and maybe Casey Affleck. And he said:
“I do believe that there’s a spectrum of behavior. And we’re going to have to figure — you know, there’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?”
Which. Look. Yes. There is a spectrum of behavior. But that right there, that’s not someone asking a sincere question. That’s someone rationalizing that not all of these stories are that bad. And they are. The people who felt silenced or threatened because some dude whipped his dick out, or grabbed them, or jerked off in a plant? They all deserve to be heard. Their abusers all deserve to be punished. Now, do these men all deserve the same level of punishment? No. But literally no one is saying that. Damon’s comment promotes the idea that this is some sort of harassment hysteria or witch hunt. His comment is not just tone-deaf, it’s dangerous. It encourages the idea that these allegations are being given too much attention, credence, and power.
You’re probably wondering why I’m getting into all of this in a review of Downsizing. You may have already commented that it is “dishonest” or “unfair” or “biased” for me to even bring up an actor’s life or comments outside of a film when reviewing it. I will say to you what I said when I reviewed Hacksaw Ridge and A Ghost Story: An artist’s public persona influences how we view their art. It definitely influences how I view their art. And this is my review. You don’t like it? Feel free to read literally any other.
For two decades, Matt Damon’s career has thrived on the perception of him as an affable Everyman. Yeah, he might play a genius mathematician, an amnesia-suffering super agent, or a resilient astronaut. But this persona means as soon as you see him onscreen, you think of his character as the kind of guy you could get a beer with. He’s relatable, friendly, likable. In Downsizing, he’s a “nice guy.” We know that not because of his actions, but because he’s called that repeatedly by his neighbor, a black market dealer played by an expectedly amped up Christoph Waltz. As Paul Safranek, Damon is the kind of guy we all know. He had grand ambitions in college, but life happens, things don’t pan out quite as he hoped. So, he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) are modestly happy, but long for a life of luxury. So, they decide to downsize, meaning actually having their bodies shrunk to 5 inches tall so they can live in a teeny luxury community, where your dollar has a lot more spending power.
In a long and bizarre sequence, Payne details the horrific process of shrinking, which includes being shaved, enema-ed, and operated on as an unconscious lump of meat. But even without this nightmarish bit, it’s difficult to latch onto WHY someone would choose to be shrunk when it means living in communities under domes to keep away bugs and insects that could eat you, and rain that could crush you. And the script by Payne and Jim Taylor doesn’t even paint an interesting world. There’s a couple visual gags of oversized items—a GIANT Saltine cracker!—but otherwise it’s our world, just smaller. So why bother with this premise? Well, there’s some lip service about how these downsized people are a drag on the economy and so deserve “half a vote.” You see, Paul, for the first time in his privileged, straight, white, cis-male life, is forced to imagine what it’s like to have his rights threatened. Yes. The character of this movie must actually become a tiny person to understand what it feels like to be treated as less than. Forget that he had a choice in the matter, because the movie will ignore that problem with this metaphor.
Paul is shocked—SHOCKED!—to realize that there are poor people in his little luxury bubble. Of course, he doesn’t discover this on his own. He must be led by Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnam refugee who drags him to the other side of the tracks. Through falling for her, Paul becomes a better person. Because of course it is a woman of color who must drag a white man to wokeness. And instead of telling her story of political rebellion, imprisonment, escape, and resilience in her new American homeland, Payne thought a boring white guy seeing beyond his own pain would make for a better story. This movie is boring, tone-deaf, and infuriating. But it does make an unexpected point about Damon’s persona. (Though that was probably not Payne’s intention.)
For years, Damon has been the Everyman and the hero. He’s been our “ego ideal,” a guy we rooted for onscreen, and in some sense wanted to be. But the growing pains of the past year or so has forced us to see a side of Damon that makes us disappointed, uncomfortable, even angry. But here’s the thing: Damon is still very much the Everyman.
The Everyman doesn’t really get why it’s a problem to stick a white guy in any given story. The Everyman is still thinking, ‘It’s not like Louis C.K. raped anyone. What’s the big deal?’ He’s progressive, but he’s problematic. He’s a “good guy,” but he’s looked the other way when his friends were not, because “I know the real story if it’s my friend.” He thinks because he’s progressive and a good guy, he’s not part of the problem. But he is. And I don’t say all this to raze Damon. He’s not alone. But he has become a mirror, reflecting back what was “good enough” until not that long ago.
Now we demand more of our heroes on and offscreen, and we should. We need the Everyman to be better, famous or not. We need Matt Damon to step it up. We need Hollywood to do the same. And we do too. It’s not enough to eye-roll over a bad take or a bad movie. We need to look within, and push ourselves to do better as well.