Downsizing

Review by Trevor Johnston

Directed by

Alexander Payne

Starring

Christoph Waltz Kristen Wiig Matt Damon

Anticipation.

Payne is the reigning master portraitist of contemporary America.

Enjoyment.

A shaggy-dog affair which follows its own nose.

In Retrospect.

It’s a state-of-the-nation address by stealth, wry and wide-reaching.

Matt Damon gets miniature in writer/director Alexander Payne’s daffy sci-fi parable.

After a whole string of wry, relatively small-scale, character-driven movies like Sideways and Nebraska, writer/director Alexander Payne goes all high-concept with his latest offering, seemingly pitched closer to the multiplex than his usual arthouse audience. It’s a slightly goofy conceit for our era of impending environmental catastrophe, in which Norwegian scientists discover a way of shrinking humans to pocket size so they’re rather less of a drain on the planet’s dwindling resources.

A decade or so later, in Payne and regular co-writer Jim Taylor’s extended timeline, the process has become a commercial reality for an increasing number of Americans who’ve decided downsizing is the way to go. Saving the planet isn’t necessarily their prime consideration however, since for hard working, financially over-extended middle income types like Matt Damon and his wife Kristen Wiig, the attraction is clear. When you’re five inches tall, your dollar buys you so much more.

First though, you have to take out all your fillings. Otherwise things could get real messy when you shrink down but your dental work doesn’t. It’s a telling detail as the movie makes the whole reduction procedure blandly industrialised yet weirdly unsettling. It has a kind of daffy momentum, sustained as Damon settles into his tiny and irredeemably naff new surroundings. Which is where Payne wants to get to. Like so many time-honoured sci-fi fables, this future vision is very much about the here and now, with an essentially chiding take on how our obsession with feathering our own nests has overtaken so many other considerations, whether it’s our whole world’s uncertain prospects, or the rights of those who service our prosperity to live decent lives themselves.

There are definite shades of It’s a Wonderful Life here too, when Damon’s everyman protagonist suddenly finds himself exposed to human nature at its worst, whether it’s Christoph Waltz’s slick wheeler dealer making a packet by shrinking down luxury goods for the nouveaux mini-riches, or the grim surroundings for downsized Hispanic servants and cleaners. Where once we had sight-gags about oversized roses and Saltine crackers, now we’re in some looking-glass version of Donald Trump’s America – not exactly where the Saturday night movie crowd expected to find themselves.

It’s a mazy, unexpected trajectory which zig-zags between farce and seriousness in a way that never quite feels fully controlled. What’s more, the portrayal of the plucky Vietnamese cleaner (played by terrific Thai-born actress Hong Chau) who takes befuddled Damon under her wing and helps him understand the value of caring for others, will doubtless prove deeply divisive – some suspecting that her pidgin English is being used for patronising comic effect, others seeing this whole plot strand as mere liberal smuggery.

To be fair to Payne, though, such an individual is unlikely to have a perfect command of a second language, and at least the plot pulls a reverse on the usual white-saviour angle. And while the movie is undoubtedly something of a ragbag, it is also good-hearted and endearing throughout, genuinely inventive, and commendable for using the full digital resources of contemporary fantasy cinema not just to console or parcel out empty CGI spectacle but also to throw a few urgent question marks in with our entertainment.

Published 24 Jan 2018

Tags: Alexander Payne Christoph Waltz Kristen Wiig Matt Damon

Anticipation.

Payne is the reigning master portraitist of contemporary America.

Enjoyment.

A shaggy-dog affair which follows its own nose.

In Retrospect.

It’s a state-of-the-nation address by stealth, wry and wide-reaching.

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