Downsizing ★★★☆☆

Matt Damon shrinks himself to save the planet and his masculinity in Alexander Payne’s sideways look at consumerism and American small-mindedness.

The film opened this year’s Venice Film Festival, a slot which has previously launched several Oscar contenders (Gravity, La La Land, Atonement) and a similar trajectory for, say, Matt Damon in this would result in the first case of the Oscar statuette being taller than the recipient.

I can’t see it happening, even if the film is always interesting and clearly directed by a skilled craftsman. Some of it is superb – sharp, funny, satirical (Gulliver’s Travels comes to mind) and above all else warmly humanist. These are precisely the qualities that keep it going. 

But Payne is a laid-back auteur. Sometimes you want more oomph but he’s too interested in remaining charming. Damon plays Paul Safranek (emphasis on the middle syllable), who takes advantage of the latest life-style fad and “gets small”, going to live in a micro-community called Leisureland, where little folk can own huge houses they’d never be able to afford in the “big” world.

At once, this is a swipe at consumerism and American small-mindedness, the micro-city’s huge wall and safety net (to keep out insects and swooping birds) standing as a constant dig at Trump. It’s a delicious irony of Payne and writer Jim Taylor’s script (probably the film’s best awards shot) that Safranek’s big risk is to gamble everything on living in the safest environment. As Payne’s films (Election, About Schmidt, Nebraska) constantly tell us, the people of Omaha love insurance.

Safranek’s existence gets shrunk (the medical sequence of the process is terrific – I loved the way the shrunken bodies are scooped up with clinical surgical trowels) and turned upside down. 

However, the second half of the movie signals a shift in tone I couldn’t quite go with. Kristen Wiig, as Paul’s wife Audrey departs, and we really miss her. She’s replaces by an outre Christoph Waltz as a Serbian playboy neighbour called Dusan and his pal, a ship’s captain played by Udo Kier. And there’s a Vietnamese cleaning lady (Hong Chau, excellent) who opens him up to a migrant underworld just outside the city wall.

I couldn’t quite marry the sci-fi comic eco-satire with the growing love interest and unenlightening social commentary. I also felt that vague sense of condescension that occasionally crops up in Payne’s work, a snobby sneer at the mainstream’s lack of taste – particularly in the case of Hong Chau’s role, which she performs beautifully but strays into uncomfortable stereotype territory. She is the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, so any severe accusations will be swerved.

Payne is smooth like Teflon and his humanity anchors all the artistic decisions, so the long film holds the attention and drollery, even as it heads to a weird climax in a Norwegian fjord. It heads in a circle here, where another community is withdrawing in on itself, wrapping itself up in a cultish comfort blanket, warping a belief system to suit the vagaries of their own philosophies and policies. Is that human nature?

But mainly, like Payne’s previous works (particularly Sideways and The Descendants) it’s a study of a man trying to rediscover his manhood (quite literally at one point) and his identity in an alienating world that seems to conspire against us. It’s smart but not spectacular – awards expectation will have to be downsized.

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