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FNE at Venice 2017: Review: Downsizing

2017-08-31
Downsizing, dir. Alexander Payne Downsizing, dir. Alexander Payne

VENICE: Actor Matt Damon might be in danger of over-exposure if such a thing were possible in today’s Hollywood.  The very much “in demand” actor appears as a leading character in two films screening in the main competition in Venice this year Alexander Payne’s Downsizing and George Clooney’s Suburbicom.

Downsizing is a mix of genres, comedy, science fiction and social consciousness raising ecology tale about saving the planet.  What makes it work is that it never preaches to the audience. Payne is a master craftsman and in his hands the tale becomes Hollywood entertainment as well as environmental fair-tale. This is a new direction of Payne after his successful road-movie genre films such as Nebraska and the venture into new territory with the same level of inspiration, skill and craftsmanship may have just produced his best film ever.

The story starts out at an international conference on environmental sustainability in the not very distant future where a Norwegian scientist Dr Jorgen AsbJornsen played by Rolf Lassgard announces that he has succeeded in shrinking human beings to a height of just five inches.  To prove it he appears as a five inch man himself.  This is all in the name of saving the planet which is threatened with extinction due to overpopulation.  Smaller people will take less space and consume fewer of the planet’s scarce resources. There is only one catch.  The process is irreversible.

Private enterprise takes over and ten years later marketing has convinced a number of people to volunteer to be shrunk with the promised of a better life-style.  Candidates for shrinkage are cajoled into the idea with promises like their assets being worth 100 times more than at their present size.

Enter our barely middle-class main characters occupational therapist Paul Safranek played by Matt Damon and his wife Audrey played by Kirsten Wiig.  The couple are in their forties and the future does not look like it is going to be much better that the past or present.  They are childless, dissatisfied and the idea of a much smaller existence that will offer a much larger house in relative terms appeals to the couple that seem to have reached a dead end in their lives.

Payne has a lot of fun with transformation to miniature people of his characters Paul and Audrey with the process requiring them to have all their body hair removed and to be completely naked.  But the couple arrives in a community that at first seems to be a suburban paradise where all their dreams can be fulfilled.  But as usual it becomes apparent that even in the miniature world life’s problems can be just daunting.

Damon plays Paul with empathy as what could have been a cartoon character becomes a sympathetic normal guy trying to cope with just getting by in a complex world while still retaining human values.

Payne wrote the script with his friend and partner Jim Taylor and he has an agenda here and Downsizing turns into a parable for our endangered world and how we have to behave if we are going to save it.  While some might find this a step too far the urgency of the message are worth a bit of moralising and the audience just might take note.

Credits: Downsizing (USA)
Director: Alexander Payne

Cast: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Keir, Neil Patrick Harris, Laura Dern, Brigitte Lundy-Paine, Neil Patrick Harris, Joaquim de Almeida, Margo Martindale.

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