Magazine article Screen International

'Downsizing': Venice Review

Magazine article Screen International

'Downsizing': Venice Review

Article excerpt

Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig star in Alexander Payne’s latest

Dir: Alexander Payne. USA. 2017. 135mins

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. 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?

Payne’s gentle comic vein doesn’t let up, but it’s less surgically satirical in the second half

That’s the premise behind a sentimental comedy that begins as a tasty satire about the commercialisation and gradual degradation of a noble ideal, then retools, after a mid-term lull, into what Alexander Payne has always done best - a story about a directionless non-hero who finds himself, with some romance thrown in to ease his journey. The two parts don’t quite mesh tonally, especially towards the end of a two and a quarter hour film that sails towards sentiment on a tide of swelling chords while trying to act jaded and cynical about our messed-up planet, and messed-up heads. But it all just about works, largely thanks to Matt Damon’s solid, reliable, anchoring central performance and some nice sidelight roles - though one of these, featuring Kristen Wiig, is over far too soon.

Originally conceived in the gap years between Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2011), Downsizing was envisioned with Paul Giamatti and Reese Witherspoon in the lead roles; that could have been a very different trip. Damon plays Paul Safranek, a downtrodden guy who could have been a surgeon but scaled down his ambitions to look after a self-pitying invalid mother back in Omaha. He works as an occupational therapist in an Omaha Steaks food processing plant, dealing with bad posture and backache. All stolid, inarticulate male heart and instinct, he’s married to Audrey (Wiig), a perky, me-centred thing who likes to push the family’s limited budget to the max. It’s this that makes the new procedure of ‘downsizing’ so attractive to the couple and so many like them.

Presented in a ten-minute pre-title sequence, the process was invented in a Norwegian lab by Dr Jorgen Asbjornsen, a scientist ably played by the Swedish TV Wallander, Rolf Lassgard. So committed was he to the cause of shrinkage as a solution to impending environmental catastrophe that Asbjornsen had himself shrunk, becoming the spiritual father of the first ‘small’ community, a Scandi idyll among the fjords, which looms large (as it were) in the film’s final section.

Ten years on from the conference in which a 13-centimetre tall Asbjornsen reveals his new compact form, and that of 36 volunteers, to the gobsmacked delegates, downsizing has become a marketable quantity, with gated, domed and netted communities springing up around the world to protect the tiny inhabitants and allow them to enjoy their new-found wealth (with so little consumption, incomes go around a hundred times further - though the film’s math would probably not stand up to serious economic scrutiny once wages and service costs are factored in). …

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