Venice Film Festival: Downsizing

Venezia 74
Directed by Alexander Payne
Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Jason Sudeikis, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and Rolf Lassgård

by Joanna Orland

Downsizing is a peculiar film that seems to mesh what feels like three different movies into one sprawling piece of cinema. There are brilliant comedic moments and overt sociopolitical themes throughout, keeping in the same vain as director Alexander Payne’s previous work. While Payne’s distinct sense of humour is evident in Downsizing, the film lacks the soul of his last film, Nebraska, which remains his greatest achievement.

Paul Safranek (Damon) and his wife Audrey (Wiig) are bogged down by debt in their effort to buy a bigger family home. Scientific advances have led to people physically shrinking themselves to live in literally small communities, with less impact on both the environment and their bank accounts. At the last moment, Audrey decides not to join Paul as he begins his tiny adventure in the community of Leisureland. This is a coming-of-age tale of a man already in middle age – as he learns how to live his new life, he learns what it means to be alive.

There is a great amount of setup in Downsizing, needed to make the science believable and its integration into the real world deeply intricate. There are multiple small societies in the world, and the sociopolitical infrastructure is highly complex, mirroring our own world in many ways. Sold as a utopia, the Leisurelands of the world are an overt commentary on communism, capitalism, environmentalism and many other layers of our social existence. As Paul delves deeper into his surroundings, more of the metaphor is thrust upon us. What falls short is the message at the core of this film.

The film feels like three separate entities – the first being a fun sci-fi film reminiscent of 80’s classics Inner Space or Weird Science. It evolves into a social and political exploration, with Payne’s voice coming through at this point. But then it evolves further and is totally consumed by its message on climate change. What is fascinating is that it initially feels like a preachy message about how we are destroying the world and need to smarten up to save the planet before we’re all doomed. Then all of a sudden, it flips and has the message of not giving a damn about what happens to the world as it will take at least a hundred years to effect us as a population. From watching this film, you certainly couldn’t gauge Alexander Payne’s stance on climate change.

Due to these mixed messages, Paul’s motivations don’t quite fit with the world around him. It’s a very personal story, focusing on Paul and almost throwing away all of the intricate world-building ideas that have gone on around him, just for the sake of his development. And the world around him is what makes this film so entertaining. The well-developed visual details of the miniature world that lives alongside the normal world is fantastically creative. Ignoring some of the real science behind the idea, Payne uses humour to enhance his aesthetics, making the first third of this film, during Paul’s transition, the most visually entertaining segment by far.

The middle act of Paul getting used to his miniature life is also rather brilliant. Payne’s films are always filled with humour, but of particular note is Christoph Waltz as Paul’s neighbour Dusan. Waltz does a proper star turn, hilarious and scene-stealing in every moment. Mere shots focusing on his face deliver laughs, nevermind his own infectious laugh and perfectly delivered dialogue. Funnily enough, I’ve always thought of him as more of a dramatic actor as he has such gravitas in every performance, even in this pure comedic one.

Well-intentioned and genuinely entertaining, there are hits and misses in Payne’s Venice Film Festival opener. Whatever you think of the film, you have to admire the comedic brilliance of Christoph Waltz, his performance alone enough reason to enjoy Downsizing. Luckily there are many other reasons to as well – in spite of its sprawling nature, it is full of gems and is overall a highly entertaining, thought-provoking film.


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