Venice + Toronto 2017: Payne’s Downsizing

On Film / The Daily — Aug 30, 2017

“Can there be any clearer signal of reality warping as we hurtle toward imminent apocalypse than the fact that Alexander Payne has made a life-affirming film?” asks Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “Venice opener Downsizing takes the long road getting there, and it’s a journey full of witty, skittish, scenic detours leading to the occasional dead end. But the ride is not only peppered with moments of inspired humor, it’s also peopled by characters who are expressly, unapologetically likable, so that by its unexpectedly chipper ending, it’s been an enjoyable, broadly accessible and wonkily heartfelt good-time-at-the-movies. It’s about humanity gaining the power to shrink to one-twelfth of its size, but it’s Payne’s most expansive film by roughly the same proportion, inverted.”

“Films about tiny little people in a big world—The Borrowers, the Honey I Shrunk… franchise—gain much of their dramatic traction by focusing on how not to get eaten by cats and other survival skills,” writes Lee Marshall in Screen. “Alexander Payne’s follow-up to Nebraska (2013) offers a different take on mini-men. What if human shrinkage were promoted for environmental reasons, to reduce our impact on a polluted planet with dwindling natural resources? And what if flawed humans, faced with a global economic downturn, immediately latched on to the process for another more selfish motive—because in a downsized world, you can live like a king for a fraction of what it would cost in the big country?”

“Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, an overstretched man in an overstretched world, working as an occupational therapist down at Omaha Steaks and still living in the house where he was born,” writes the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “Paul hungers for a fresh start and finds it courtesy of the newfangled technique of ‘cellular miniaturization,’ which promptly shrinks the recipient to a height of five inches. This technique has apparently been pioneered by scientists out in Norway, although one might just as easily claim that Payne has been doing it for years. Films like Election, Sideways, and Nebraska, for instance, spotlighted a burgeoning crisis in American masculinity, focusing on men who fear that they’re seen as small by the world. With the excellent Downsizing, Payne has simply gone that extra mile.”

“Once the transition has taken place, Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor wring out the concept for everything it’s worth,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin, “and their plot makes so many left turns it’s easy to temporarily forget which way is forward. The star-studded supporting cast”—including Kristen Wiig as Paul’s wife, Audrey, and Jason Sudeikis as his best friend—“who nudge Paul’s life onto a series of unexpected new tracks, are all given entrances like they’re suddenly emerging from behind the curtain at a panto—not least Christoph Waltz, who gives an uproarious turn as Damon’s neighbor, a Serbian playboy called Dusan, and Udo Kier as his improbable friend and business associate, an impeccably turned-out yachtsman.”

It’s “the most whimsically outlandish film of Payne’s career,” finds Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “though that doesn’t mean it’s made with anything less than his usual highly thought-out and controlled master-craftsman bravura. Downsizing is an ingenious comedy of scale, a touching tale of a man whose problems grow bigger as he gets smaller, and an earnest environmental parable. It all adds up to a film that risks, at times, becoming a little too much, yet Payne . . . has made that rare thing: a ticklish and resonant crowd-pleaser for grown-ups.”

“Matt Damon's Paul Safranek is like the hero of a Frank Capra or Preston Sturges film of seventy-five years ago, an ordinary man who has a certain sort of greatness thrust upon him,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “At the same time, the movie is a highly sophisticated creation that, due to its off-hand, underplayed presentation of the future, essentially seems to be taking place in the present day.”

Downsizing sees Payne and Taylor working on a larger palette than usual, but like their shrunken characters, the filmmakers’ humor and their sharp observation of the human condition have survived the change in size and scope,” finds Alonso Duralde at TheWrap.

“It’s the first time I’ve done a visual effects movie, so it was a lovely education on how to make one,” Payne tells Deadine’s Nancy Tartaglione. “Look at all these people making visual effects films all the time, making crappy ones at that. How hard can it be? The point is to use it well and make sure—I’m saying the obvious—it always serves the story.”

Updates, 8/31: For Ben Croll, dispatching to IndieWire, Payne’s “latest work plays just as much like a blown-up, fun home image of Mike Judge’s Idiocracy, as it too uses the conventions of science fiction to mount a caustic social satire. And like Judge’s 2006 dystopian comedy (which feels less and far fetched each passing day, as the meme goes), Downsizing is rife with witty visual touches and inspired comic premises but never quite comes together as fully successful whole.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 4/5) and Upcoming editor Filippo L’Astorina.

Update, 9/2: “So dense is this film with ideas and wonderful sight gags (as an admirer of Buster Keaton, Payne has always had an eye for physical comedy) that the roving plotline can run away from one at times,” writes Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “Downsizing is arguably the most flawed of Payne’s work, but despite its apocalyptic overtones, it’s also his most optimistic.”

Update, 9/3:Downsizing is a self-satisfied sci-fi nothingburger that shies away from its early promise and goes about as deep as your average Black Mirror episode,” argues Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf. And “it makes a series of wrong moves that throw off the delicate tone, raising the pretension levels to toxic. Two Eurotrashy neighbors (Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier) blur Payne’s critique on social climbing; they’re way too gaudy. Later, the introduction of a cringeworthy Vietnamese cleaning woman and ex-dissident (Hong Chau) borders on broken-English caricature. The movie want to get at bigger ideas about human extinction and the sustainability of ‘perfect’ communities, but it forgets the simplest thing, which is to show how the outside world would interact with these tiny jerks.”

Updates, 9/6: Guy Lodge for Vanity Fair: “Rarely has a film contrived such elaborate means to arrive at a post-marital narrative of masculine self-recovery: give or take the most ludicrously high of fantasy concepts, this is still very much the work of the socially skeptical mind behind About Schmidt and The Descendants.

For the BBC’s Nicholas Barber, “this bracingly strange and original film’s ambitions are much greater than they first appear. And Downsizing is clear about one thing: shrinking until you’re as small as a hamster isn’t the most significant way you can change.”

Updates, 9/7:Downsizing is less a fully-formed satire than a clever idea stranded in first draft and stretched uncomfortably to feature length,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “The film’s best joke is its premise, a metaphor for the insane lengths people will go for material possession or even just the feeling of upward mobility. But Payne almost seems embarrassed to take the idea any further, to really exploit the visual or conceptual possibilities of a world of tiny people.”

Downsizing is Payne’s most ambitious movie,” writes Mike Ryan at Uproxx, “but that also might be his worst enemy here. In one film, Payne and longtime co-writer Jim Taylor take on climate change, overpopulation, race relations, immigration, disenfranchised voters, the complete extinction of the human species, and doomsday cults.”

Updates, 9/10: “Wiig's exit from the narrative has a vindictive, sexist tinge to it, and Downsizing curdles from there,” writes Keith Uhlich at the House Next Door. “Payne, however, appears to think he's making some kind of grand statement. So you just sit back and marvel at how his reach continually exceeds his grasp.”

Downsizing forever cements my conviction that non-nerds should somehow be legally blocked from trying to do science fiction,” writes Dan Schindel at Vague Visages. Payne and Taylor “seem to be aiming for something Charlie Kaufman-esque, but can’t even match Fantastic Voyage, or Innerspace . . . or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

For Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com, Downsizing is “easily Payne’s worst film, a work that’s woefully misguided, casually racist, thematically incomplete, and tries to ride on a high concept until a ham-fisted message arrives in the final act to really drive the hypocrisy home.”

Updates, 9/11:Downsizing is a bit of a Trojan horse, articulating its meaningful interventions on the racial and class dynamics present in our perfect urban societies (and other utopias everywhere) within an eco-panic narrative that sees the end of the species on the comparative near horizon,” writes Michael J. Anderson. “Payne’s film, and this I suspect is why it has been received so coldly by a segment of the American critical public, really is not a safe space in an era when class (and Christian religion) has been expunged from consensus liberal-left politics, having been replaced in part by the environmental concerns that are ostensibly the film’s subject. . . . [T]here likely will be no more idea-rich work of American cinema this year.”

“Audiences thrilled by the film’s elaborate sci-fi setup may have trouble transitioning to the movie Downsizing becomes, but there’s no denying this is a picture with a lot on its mind about the nature of happiness and fulfillment,” adds Kevin Lally at Film Journal International.

Updates, 9/16: Writing for The Week, Noel Murray argues that “for every joke or idea that doesn’t work, Downsizing has twice as many that do. It helps that Payne and Taylor have clearly thought through the ramifications of this strange scientific breakthrough, and that they ultimately treat this movie’s big idea as a lens through which to view how humanity tends to react to potentially world-ending crises. Some profit, while still patting themselves on the back for ‘making a difference.’ Others bunker away from the encroaching darkness. And some look at the problem right in front of them, and try to solve it.”

But for the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang, “the reach of the movie’s topical ambitions far exceeds its tonal grasp. More often than not, Payne’s preferred method of trying to squeeze laughs and tears from the same moment—or rather, following a lump-in-the-throat moment with a carefully timed comic jab—simply cancels itself out. There’s an emotional flatness to this movie, which doesn’t feel like it’s bursting with ideas so much as meandering noncommittally from one to the next.”

“The greatest science fiction stories generally start with a single, significant change to the world, then consider what other changes would follow,” writes Tasha Robinson at the Verge. “There’s nothing more disappointing in the genre than a great idea that ends up buried under a mediocre story. That’s what happens with Downsizing. . . . It’s frustratingly good at first, and then just frustrating, because it veers away from the things that make it unique, intelligent, and exciting.”

At In Review Online, Luke Gorham suggests that “the CliffsNotes version of this script demands Vonnegut comparisons.”

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