Downsizing: Alexander Payne goes sci-fi but retains his style
Four years after the release of Nebraska, Alexander Payne’s comeback picture has been chosen to open the 74th Venice Film Festival. The film, starring Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, begins as a sci-fi: a Norwegian lab develops a process to shrink human beings (and any other life form) to a staggering size of five inches. This would – in theory – solve all the problems related to overpopulation in an inclusive way. In the US, however, this process opens up the opportunity for people like Paul Safranek (Damon) – an occupational therapist who dropped out from med school to look after his sick mother and is still paying off his student loan – to fulfil their ambitions: “small people” live in special communities such as Leisureland, they do not pay taxes and, because everything is so tiny, they can afford the life they couldn’t even dream of before. Diamond jewellery sells for less than $100, mansions for a few thousand with every luxury benefit. Paul’s and Audrey’s (Kristen Wiig) $150k equity translates to over $12m. It’s the American dream.
Despite the sci-fi premise, Payne delights us with his social satire and dark humour. He shows us that America is so disenchanted with the system that people are prepared to do anything to improve their status quo – even risking their lives. In fact, once they sign up for the bizarre downsizing project, among the other things the couple finds out, there’s a chance of 1/225,000 to die during the process. The shrinking sequence, which is performed to large groups of people simultaneously, is funny and a caricature of any opportunity designed for the masses. Things – naturally – do not turn out for the best; the miniature life ends up being less comforting and more boring than his previous life. Until Paul meets Gong Jiang (Hong Chau) and Dusan (Christoph Waltz) who bring colour to his pale existence.
Matt Damon doesn’t fail at embodying the average man who suddenly, on the verge of a breakdown, goes for crazy, feel-good actions. While Waltz is hilarious and has tremendous screen presence, it’s Chau who is the real star of Downsizing. Her character – a Vietnamese activist sentenced to shrinking, who then illegally migrated to the US – is cantankerous but sweet and heartwarming at the same time. The harsher she is in her relationship with Paul, the more she is likeable. There are also cameos from Laura Dern, Jason Sudeikis and Neil Patrick Harris worthy of a mention.
Due to the number of issues at stake – economic depression, personal failure, love, climate change, Apocalypse – Downsizing probably isn’t Alexander Payne’s best crafted picture; it ticks, however, all the boxes of the director’s filmmaking style, just on a whole new level. Funnily enough, to go bigger he had to go smaller. Irony was and still remains one of Payne’s trademarks.
Filippo L’Astorina, the editor
Downsizing does not have a UK release date yet.