Happy to report: Alexander Payne has still got it.
I would be first to admit that, while I fell in love with Payne after the one-two punch of make the foreign relatable CITIZEN RUTH and ELECTION, the more recent, hugely acclaimed double whammy of THE DESCENDANTS and NEBRASKA left me cold. The humanist touch was there, but less compellingly, inventively packaged. Somehow a spark has been missing.
With DOWNSIZING, which opens the 74th Venice Film Festival today, Payne proves he can still wow us. It’s a beautifully crafted movie with the kind of big heart, important message and sneaky laughs that are likely to win favors with Academy voters. AND it’s trippy and undeniably ambitious too. Color this guy charmed.
The very literal title describes a scientific breakthrough achieved in a Norwegian lab headed by Dr. Jorgen AsbJornsen (Rolf Lassgård) that successfully shrinks adult humans to inch-long miniatures. A first volunteer test group of 36 shows up four years later with no side effects, less than one garbage bag of collective waste and nothing but joyous experiences to share from life in a „small community“, including the first „small baby“. For a world plagued by dire over-population, this technology seems to offer a perfect, merciful solution.
Occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) hasn’t exactly led a fulfilling life, having quit his dream of becoming a doctor to return to Omaha and care for his sick mother. His wife Audrey (Kristin Wiig) is just as frustrated, not being able to move on from a mediocre existence for reasons as banal as poor finances. They finally decide to take the plunge, start anew, go small. A twist in the process, however, leaves Paul stranded in a strange new world more lost and confused than ever.
Without going into spoiler territory, the screenplay by Payne and long-time collaborator Jim Taylor is a rich, original piece of work. Building on a gimmick-y premise, it manages to fill the story with heartfelt human substance and ask poignant questions however implausible the context may seem. If such a technology does exist, what kind of people would be rushing to have themselves miniaturized? Would saving the planet be the primary reason that they commit to this? Would a community of the „small“ be as utopian as suggested or would familiar human vice find a way to fuck that up as well? Ultimately, Paul’s fanciful and often unexpected journey is one about finding our purpose in life. With not particularly subtle but nonetheless eloquent, affecting strokes, DOWNSIZING proposes a surprisingly modest vision that touches a nerve in spite of – or perhaps because of – the outrageous set-up.
Payne and Taylor’s script also awards us with a cast of memorable, vividly hyper supporting characters. Christoph Waltz plays Paul’s sleazily over-the-top French/Swiss neighbor and is obviously having a blast. The ingenious pairing of him and Lars von Trier’s go-to guy and all-around master of weird Udo Kier as a sidekick proves as delightful as it sounds. A couple of the film’s blissfully lol moments worked courtesy of the priceless deadpan of these two.
Speaking of the comedic tones of the film, it’s going to be a hard call for the Globes whether to categorize it as drama or comedy. The far-fetched premise carries an inherently comedic undertone and the editing sometimes aims for an expressly funny effect, but can you call a film that purposefully contemplates, among other things, the end of the human race a comedy? Kudos to Payne for playing with so many ideas at the same time and taking them far enough until the sadness and ridiculousness both emerge. Helping him achieve that is, besides the seriously underappreciated Matt Damon who demonstrates once again he can communicate a sense of groundedness and make the most foreign relatable, the film’s biggest secret weapon – Vietnamese-American actress Hong Chau.
Playing the part of a Vietnamese dissident who has been shrunken against her will and survived a fatal journey to the US inside the package for a TV set (yes, and this film can still very much be called a drama!), she’s given lines in consistently broken English and delivers them like a boss. Acting opposite multiple Oscar winners, it’s her that you can’t take your eyes away from. She makes you laugh, cry and in one emotionally climatic scene, the overwhelming truthfulness of her performance blasts through any last dramatic/comedic conceit and it is shattering.
DOWNSIZING is at 135 minutes slightly overlong but it is also thoughtful, imaginative and deeply compassionate. An Oscar nod for Payne and Taylor’s screenplay seems like a shoo-in. Damon’s performance might once again be overlooked for ist understatedness but Waltz and especially Chau are bona-fide award contenders. I also wouldn’t rule out nods for Best Picture, Director, Score and Original Song (if the one playing over the end credits fulfills the criteria).
This year’s Venice Film Festival just kicked off on an exciting note.