Telluride: 'Downsizing,' Kicking Off the Fest, Looks Like Love-It-or-Hate-It Oscar Contender

THR's awards columnist assesses the awards prospects of Alexander Payne's latest film, which stars Matt Damon.
Courtesy of Telluride Film Festival

It's hard to know what to make of the 15 seconds of seated applause that greeted the first North American screening of Alexander Payne's new film Downsizing as it played in the Patron's Preview slot this afternoon as the 44th Telluride Film Festival got underway. (Two days earlier, the film also opened the 74th Venice Film Festival.) Perhaps a better indication of the film's prospects for awards season was the gushing praise overheard from numerous rival awards strategists who, over the coming months, will have to push the films they are representing against this Paramount title, a social satire that is undeniably original, smart, funny and weird, not unlike Spike Jonze's similarly futuristic 2013 film Her, which wound up with five Oscar nominations, including a best picture mention, and won the best original screenplay award.

Downsizing, which isn't slated to open until Dec. 22, centers on Paul, a George Bailey-esque, good-hearted everyman (played by Matt Damon, who else?) who once displayed great promise, but winds up living a somewhat "pathetic" life, to quote another character in the film, because of sacrifices that he's made for others, including his mother (Jayne Houdyshell) and wife (Kristen Wiig). Then, one day, an incredible scientific procedure is developed that makes it possible for humans to be shrunk to 0.0634 percent of their normal size (the anti-human-growth hormone?) and relocate to self-sustaining "communities of the small." Paul and his wife decide to take the plunge, both to spare the planet from overcrowding and live much more grandiose lives for much less cost. But when Paul comes to after going through with the procedure, he discovers that he has to navigate a whole new (small) world more or less on his own. In doing so, he encounters along the way an eccentric friend (Christoph Waltz) and unlikely love interest (Hong Chau), as well as a host of other colorful characters (played by Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, James Van Der Beek, Niecy Nash, Udo Kier and previous Payne collaborators Laura Dern and Margo Martindale).

It's sort of like The Wizard of Oz, complete with lots of little people — only it's not a dream, and there's no going back to Kansas.

Payne's a longtime friend of the Telluride Film Festival — his film The Descendants opened the 2011 edition, and he attends every year, even when he doesn't have a film in the lineup. He co-wrote Downsizing with his frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, drawing upon an idea suggested by the latter's brother, Doug Taylor. When my colleague Stephen Galloway and I ran into the film's Oscar-winning producer, Mark Johnson (Rain Man), after the screening, Johnson called it Payne's "most ambitious" and "most optimistic" film. That may well be the case. It must have been a massive challenge to realize, not least for technical reasons. A combination of brilliant production design and visual effects enable seemingly small people to believably coexist onscreen alongside seemingly normal-sized people — a conceit that's been seen in movies like 1957's The Incredible Shrinking Man, 1981's The Incredible Shrinking Woman and 1989's Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, but which reminded me just as much of Anomalisa, another Paramount release from two years ago, at least in terms of the scale difference between the film's animators-puppeteers and the tiny characters they manipulated on intricately designed sets.

My hunch is that Downsizing will be a love-it-or-hate-it movie for most who see it — and that enough people will love it for it to land some major Oscar nominations, quite possibly for best picture and best original screenplay and maybe for best director, best actor for Damon, best supporting actress for Chau and best production design. At the same time, I absolutely can see some taking issue with Chau's character, a Vietnamese cleaning lady who speaks broken English, although one probably won't find another female Asian character with a larger part in a film this awards season, which also counts for something.

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