Venice 2017: Alexander Payne's 'Downsizing' is Ambitious & Amusing
by Alex Billington
August 30, 2017
It's always refreshing to come across a film that can genuinely be referred to as something we've never really seen before. Alexander Payne's latest film is Downsizing, an ambitious social satire starring Matt Damon. The concept of the film is what makes it so innovative - the Norwegians invent a method to shrink humans down to a few inches, and so people begin to shrink themselves in order to live a better life (and help save the environment at the same time). Not only does the film boldly attempt to address (in subtle, smart was) many of the big issues affecting our planet at the moment, but it's overall scope is impressive, never holding back and feeling completely believable in every way. It's an impressive accomplishment and fully engaging.
Downsizing initially introduces us to the married couple played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig. After being hesitant at first, they decide to go ahead with the "Downsizing" procedure with plans to move into "Leisureland". Alexander Payne uses creative filmmaking tricks to "show" the procedure without necessarily resorting to extravagant CGI to show someone shrinking. Instead, it's all about perspective and placement, and everything feels seamlessly implemented. Once the Downsizing begins, that's where he throws the first twist. And as it plays out it's hard to see where it's going but each new twist and turn is just as interesting as the last. The film is part comedy, part drama, with some potent emotional moments and thoughtful scenes.
Damon's character Paul Safranek makes some miniature friends in Leisureland, mainly Christoph Waltz as an aging European black market dealer/party man (with Udo Kier as his accomplice) and Hong Chau, a Vietnamese woman who was downsized against her will. The most impressive part of the film is the way Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor work in various aspects of this modern world – climate change, refugees, racism (or should we call it "size-ism" in this?), selfishness – all the while reminding us it's the goodness of humanity that keeps society happy and healthy. It's amusing how they even poke fun at the cliche American dream of a big house and the (seemingly) "perfect" life, trying to teach us there's more to life than just that.
Overall, the film is an odd mix of tones that don't always work together, with a few loose ends. But there's so much going on and so many interesting twists in the plot that this didn't both me much. Downsizing feels like the ideas of Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonze, and Mike Judge all rolled into one, which is also to say I wouldn't have expected to see this from Alexander Payne. And perhaps Spike Jonze could've made an even better film if he was at the helm. Nonetheless, it is so entertaining and so ambitious that it's quite easy to enjoy and admire what Payne is going for (and mostly pulls it off). Plus, getting to the end of the journey is completely satisfying and it will leave you with a desire to do better and help others. Which is really the entire point of the film anyway. What better feeling to leave us with than that? We can all make a difference.
Alex's Venice 2017 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
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