Downsizing: Alexander Payne’s Large-Scale, Most Ambitious Film?

The best thing to be said about Alexander Payne’s new film, Downsizing, which serves as opening night of the 2017 Venice Film Fest, is that it’s totally unpredictable in narrative, structure and tone.

Paramount will release this classy and prestigious film as one of its Oscar contenders on December 22, at the height of the awards season.

Payne has taken the premise of a shrinking man, a familiar conceit in Hollywood sci-fi films of yesteryear, as a starting point for delivering an existential meditation on the future of humanity. Here is a movie about small, undersized individuals whose ambition and scope are exactly the opposite, oversized and even outsized.

It’s impossible to describe “Downsizing” in terms of a single genre.  On one level, it boasts the visual of a sci-fi (white on white), taking place in the near future. On the other, it’s a film grounded in contemporary reality, with subtle criticism of the American Way of Life. And it also works as a meditation on the future of the human race, reworking in an original way the thesis of “the end of the world.”

Downsizing represents a turning point in the career of Payne. We get a new facet of the director, more as a humanist concerned with the state of the real world than a social satirist of Nebraska’s folks.

The lengthy film (135 minutes) is roughly divided into three parts. In the first, we are introduced to a lower-middle class married but childless couple from Omaha (the usual locale of Payne’s stories), who struggle in their day to day existence.

Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek (the running joke is that no one can pronounce his name properly), an ordinary “Everyman,” happily married, but “something” is missing from his life: a sense of true meaning, a raison d’etre for his very being.

At an international conference—titled Sustainability—a Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jorgen AsbJornsen (Rolf Lassgard, star of A Man Called Ove), announces that his lifetime project has come to fruition: Humans can be reduced to five-inches, and live more happily in Leisureland, a special community of the small.

At a school class reunion, Paul, who’s occupational therapist, and Audrey, meet their friends (Jason Sudeikis and Laura Dern) who have gone small and love every minute of it.

For the first hour or so, Damon is all alone, as Audrey decides, at the very last moment, not to go through the medical process of shrinking, which is described in graphic detail. Unlike most sci-fi films, the government or military have no role in the experiment; it’s a private enterprise and it’s based on free will.

Paul’s routine existence as a telephone sales operator is disrupted by three eccentric individuals.  There are two aging men (or rather boys), Dusan and Joris (Christoph Waltz and Udo Keir), who spend their time frivolously in parties of booze and drugs.

However, the real change comes through accidental meeting with a Vietnamese refugee, Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a one-legged woman who had been in prison due to political protests.  Working as a maid at Dusan’s house, this tough, relentless femme puts pressure on Paul into helping poor immigrants–meant to represent the Third World–who reside in a huge tenement.

The movie is based on the notions of culture clash—or rather clashes—and interconnectivity, forcing Paul to get out of his passive complacency and face a totally new world and different subcultures, he has never encountered or even heard about. 

Payne and his regular and collaborator Jim Taylor have built their vivid, colorful tale around a middle-aged man in desperate need for change and redemption—just like the protagonist of About Schmidt (played by Jack Nicholson).

In the past, Payne has been compared to Preston Sturges in his subtle mode of social satire. But I think Downsizing follows more in the footsteps of Frank Capra, updating the latter’s Depression-era comedies to the new Trump era.

Of all his films, Downsizing is the most outlandish and least overtly humorous, which may reflect his progressing age (he’s 56) and new interests.  

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