On the Conditional White Male Empathy in Alexander Payne's Downsizing
The latest Alexander Payne film Downsizing is in theaters. Not only is it a bad film with a meandering plot and dull characters, but it is also yet another exploration of white male empathy, and a rather insulting one at that. Downsizing stars Matt Damon as a Midwestern physical therapist, unhappy with his ordinary life. He decides to take advantage of a new technology called ‘downsizing,’ reducing people to five inches to reduce their carbon footprint; a happy side effect is that they live like kings on their newly-inflated wealth. Paul is shocked to discover that the tiny community still has class issues, and that its environmental impact is too little, too late.
Paul becomes more ‘woke’ as the film goes on, thanks to his friendship with Ngoc Lan Tran, played by the brilliant Hong Chau. Lan Tran is a (deep breath) one-legged, altruistic, Vietnamese refugee who was shrunken against her will after being jailed for her protests in Vietnam. Oh, and she’s a cleaning lady. Oh, and she speaks broken English with a thick accent (turns out this wasn’t her creative decision, as her dialogue was written that way in the script). Lan Tran opens Paul’s eyes to the tiny slums outside his cushy neighborhood, and he realizes that, hey, maybe he should care about other people. It’s through her that Paul develops, what I call, conditional white male empathy.
As seen with Paul’s journey in Downsizing, conditional white male empathy is where a film’s white male protagonist has to be guided towards empathizing with others and to stop obsessing over his own problems. And the character doing the guiding is usually some kind of marginalized individual. Lan Tran isn’t a real character. She’s a plot device, an ‘Exceptional Minority’ whose own life is but a lesson for Paul. Look how much Lan Tran has suffered, and yet she is still selfless and noble. She hobbles to her 7th story walk-up apartment on a poorly made prosthetic leg (which Paul breaks). She takes leftover food and medication to the other residents in her building. Lan Tran’s character is a direct contrast to the leisurely, tiny characters played by Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, and Jason Sudeikis.
None of the elements of Lan Tran’s character are bad on their own. But all of them together make her into a saint, not a real person. And neither Paul, nor Alexander Payne, show any empathy for anyone else. Paul’s wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), is played like a villain because she chooses not to abandon her life by going small. Paul gets angry with Kristen (Kerri Kenney), the woman he’s dating after his divorce, because she doesn’t want to move too fast. The movie even judges two nameless women who participated in a threesome with Christoph Waltz, because why not do some slut shaming? None of these people deserve any real humanity because they’re not as good and decent as Lan Tran, the model minority.
Downsizing is part of a trend of films in which white men learn the same lesson over and over again. In the Hugh Jackman musical The Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum has to learn not to abandon his performers to chase after high society. In Brad’s Status, Ben Stiller plays a monstrous narcissist who feels bitterly entitled to whatever he wants. Stiller’s character even has a discussion with two talented, bright POC coeds who open his eyes to his privilege. His ogling at their beauty and accomplishments muddles whatever he learns from that conversation. The white protagonist has to be made aware of the real world, but his enlightenment is reliant on the fantasy of marginalized people willing to take him there.
Ultimately, these films undermine their own themes and messages. Even though Paul in Downsizing learns to help others, the film maintains the status quo with him as a white savior. He is still in a position of power over the people he helps. He still had to be convinced that these people are worthy through their extreme helplessness and resilient kindness. Downsizing was made for a white audience, who can come away feeling good about themselves.
The reason why films like The Shape of Water, Get Out, and Lady Bird feel so refreshing is because they force the audience to step into the shoes of marginalized people who aren’t exceptional on paper. They’re just people whose stories are worth hearing simply because they are human beings with their own interior lives. Alexander Payne might have had noble intentions with Downsizing, but the framing of his narrative is alienating and often infuriating.