'Downsizing': Film Review | Venice 2017

Big and beautiful.
12/22/2017

Alexander Payne's latest, which opened the Venice Film Festival, stars Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig as a husband and wife who shrink themselves in order to simplify their lives.

Downsizing is a wonderfully outsized movie for these times if there ever was one. Alexander Payne has taken a conceit heretofore used for gag-oriented sci-fi and comedy, that of shrinking human beings down to the size of a finger, and breathtakingly transformed it into a way of addressing the planet's overriding long-term issue. Captivating, funny and possessed of a surprise-filled zig-zag structure that makes it impossible to anticipate where it's headed, this is a deeply humane film that, like the best Hollywood classics, feels both entirely of its moment and timeless. It was a risky roll of the dice, but one that hits the creative jackpot.

The rare director who has never made a bad film, Payne has now arguably created his best one with a work that easily accommodates many moods, flavors, intentions and ambitions. At its core, Downsizing grapples head-on with the long-term viability of humanity's existence on this planet, but with no pretension or preachiness at all, while on a moment-to-moment basis it's a human comedy dominated by personal foibles and people just trying to get by in life. It's also a science-fiction film that not for a second looks or feels like one.

As such, this is a unique undertaking, one centered on an unexceptional Everyman character who unwittingly embarks upon an exceptional life journey; in that sense, Matt Damon's Paul Safranek is like the hero of a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges film of 75 years ago, an ordinary man who has a certain sort of greatness thrust upon him. At the same time, the movie is a highly sophisticated creation that, due to its off-hand, underplayed presentation of the future, essentially seems to be taking place in the present day.

The setup definitely makes you lean in: At an international sustainability conference, Norwegian elder statesmen Dr. Jorgen AsbJornsen (Rolf Lassgard, memorable last year as the old curmudgeon in A Man Called Ove) stuns the crowd both by announcing that his project of shrinking human beings is now a reality and proving it by appearing in his new guise as a five-inches-tall man alongside his test “community of the small.” They all happily sing the praises of the transformation (and, in Payne's one conceit, speak at full-sized normal volume, not in mouse-like squeaks).

This marks the revolution, albeit one that will occur in very slow motion; citizens are not coerced into going small, but make the decision for themselves, albeit with plenty of persuasive promotion that stresses the great financial upside, improved lifestyle and environmental benefit. Payne has made the interesting choice of not involving the government in the program at all — the scientific initiative didn't come from Washington, nor does funding, as it's strictly a private enterprise undertaking.

Ten years on, the focus settles on ordinary lives, not quite the low-end, small-town ones on view in Payne's last film, Nebraska, but just-getting-by, vaguely middle-class folks like Omaha Steaks occupational therapist Paul Safranek (a suitably chubbed-out Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Fortyish and childless, the couple can see their future pretty clearly and it's not a glorious sight. At a school class reunion they meet old friends (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe in peppy cameos) who have gone small and rave about life at Leisureland, a planned community for the teeny where everything is pristine, well-manicured and ultra-cheap.

On a tour, Paul and Audrey are impressed by the faux mansion-style elegance and amenities — the grandiose doors and entryways, gaudy chandeliers and fire places, polished furniture, big pools and golf courses. Seduced by the lure of this ready-made easy street, where everything costs a mere fraction of what they're used to, the duo decide to make the plunge.

Almost as if in a live-action version of a Pixar film, the reduction procedure is elegantly, even hypnotically, presented as a mass production affair in a pristine facility accompanied by official reassurances; the operation is now routine and when you come out the other end into a world in which is everything is scaled down proportionally, you can't tell the difference between your old and new lives.

This is also the point where the first major narrative dog-leg sends events off into highly unexpected dramatic territory that best remains a surprise. But it can fairly be revealed that, a year later, Paul's routine existence as a telephone sales rep is rudely but amusingly infringed upon by two aging Eurotrashy party boys, Dusan and Joris (Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier), whose stream of girls, booze and drugs provides an outlet for dubious fun. Far more important, however, is how this accidentally leads to another sharp turn through Paul's meeting with a dissident Vietnamese refugee, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a maid who resides in a previously unknown part of the downsized world, a vast tenement filled with poor immigrants on the other side of a towering wall. The place is like an extraordinary microcosm of the Third World under one roof.

The strange chemistry of assorted thematic ingredients produces unexpected and potent surges of emotion at odd moments throughout the film, but none are as moving and frequent as those occasioned by Ngoc Lan. A no-nonsense woman of constant industriousness, she suffers no foolishness, just the pain of wearing a prosthetic device on one of her legs below the knee. Spending time with this woman exposes the very Middle American Paul to people and perspectives he's never remotely encountered, and an equally surprising eventuality soon leads the odd foursome of Paul, Ngoc, Dusan and Joris to a true date with destiny in distant Norway, where it scientifically all began.

Downsizing is an epic in terms of the human journeys taken, an odyssey of experiences unlike any lived thus far on Earth but still not at all unfamiliar on an emotional level; the fundamental things apply, as the famous song said, only the playing field and assortment of participants are wildly different from what we're accustomed to seeing in popular entertainment these days.

There could scarcely be a better stand-in for a Regular Joe than Damon, whose Paul affably and conscientiously goes along to get along out of a basic good nature until he meets Ngoc Lan, whose largely undiscussed but obviously brutal life history makes her limited English painfully blunt. For her there is no time for niceties, only for very direct communication of life's absolute necessities and realities. Hong Chau, previously seen in Inherent Vice and HBO's Treme, is sensational in this unlikely role.

Her comic instincts subordinated, Wiig matches up fine with Damon as a Middle American wife, while Waltz has a field day as a European playboy a bit past his prime who ultimately puts Paul on the path for his greatest journey. Outre icon Kier provides amusingly welcome company as Waltz's second banana.

The film had to be flawless from a technical point of view to be convincing, and so it is. The perspectives involving full-sized and miniaturized humans together in the same frame always look just right, and the straightforward presentation of the new mixed world, with big and small co-existing, is handled in an off-hand manner that makes it instantly acceptable. As usual, Payne and his longtime writing partner Jim Taylor inject droll humor whenever possible, which helps keep the human story vibrant within the futuristic technical framework. Craft contributions, notably Stefania Cella's production design, James E. Price's visual effects and Phedon Papamichael's cinematography, are immaculate, while Rolfe Kent's score is discreetly supportive of this moving and beautiful film.

Production companies: Ad Hominem, Gran Via
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Udo Keir, Rolf Lassgard, Ingjerd Egeberg, Rune Temte, Margareta Pettersson, Soren Pilmark, Joaquim De Almeida, Jason Sudeikis, James Van Der Beek, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Niecy Nash, Margo Martindale
Director: Alexander Payne
Screenwriters: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Producers: Alexander Payne, Mark Johnson, Jim Taylor
Executive producers: Megan Ellison, Jim Burke, Diana Pokorny
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Stefania Cella
Costume designer: Wendy Chuck
Editor: Kevin Tent
Music: Rolfe Kent
Visual effects supervisor: James E. Price
Casting: John Jackson
Venue: Venice Film Festival (opening night)

Rated PG-13, 135 minutes

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