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Movie Review: 'Downsizing'

Alexander Payne Surprises with a Lite Sci-Fi Comic Romance

The soulful Alexander Payne has ventured into new territory with his part sci-fi, part romance, Downsizing. Starring Matt Damon, Downsizing tells the story of Paul Safranek, a Midwestern schlub dealing with the daily grind of a job he doesn’t love, a home he can’t afford, and a wife, Audrey, who may or may not love him, played by Kristen Wiig. Paul’s typical Midwestern domesticity is upended by the discovery of Downsizing which gives humanity the chance to shrink to about 5 inches tall and help save the environment by consuming less.

Paul and his wife are not immediate adapters to Downsizing. In fact, the process of Downsizing is nearly a decade old when Paul decides that he is interested in the process. Paul is particularly intrigued when he’s told by a friend played by Jason Sudeikis, that downsizing means living like a millionaire on the salary of a middle class nobody. Paul and his wife’s savings turn into millions of dollars in assets if they choose to downsize.

Where the film goes from there is a real trip. Paul undergoes the procedure and is set to live out his life at 5 inches tall. Audrey pulls out at the last possible moment and Paul is left to fend for himself in this strange new world called Leisureland. Losing half his mini-fortune in the divorce (I have no insight as to why Kristen Wiig was cast for such a small role), Paul is forced to take on another job he doesn’t like and begins dating another women he doesn’t particularly like and seems content to live the same life he lived at regular size.

Thankfully, Paul’s neighbor Dusan, played with charm by two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz, has other plans for his new best friend. At a party at his neighbors home Paul drops acid and has his first trip. Then in the aftermath he meets Ngnoc Lan (Hong Chau) and the two become friends. At the behest of Ngnoc Lan, Paul begins following his long ago dream of being a doctor, he was a physical therapist before Downsizing, treating those who may or may not have willingly downsized, a relatively minor but intriguing plot point. 

For all of the oddity of Downsizing, this remains a perfectly Alexander Payne-style movie. The film is populated by charming characters all seeking to understand their world more and by extension, understand themselves more. Their search is human and relatable and all of the sci-fi stuff, the science experiments and the kooky ways in which the small make use of the resources of the large, are merely fun window dressing for these wonderful characters.

Matt Damon’s Paul marks the best character Damon has played in some time. Paul isn’t all that distinguished but Damon invests him with an underdog charm that you don’t expect from someone of Damon’s star power and charisma. Watching Damon as Paul suffer indignities and setbacks we really feel for him in ways we may not have felt for other Damon characters that were always so cocksure about how they might escape troubling situations.

Damon’s chemistry with Hong Chau is surprising and delightful. Chau’s thick accent makes her initially seem like a caricature but Payne and Chau are very careful in building out her relatable qualities. The tentative romance between Damon’s schlub and Chau’s displaced tough chick activist is so wonderfully layered and unique that by the time it really gains momentum you’ve barely noticed the romance is happening. The tenderness and understanding between Paul and Ngoc Lan may not steam up the scream but their warmth and humor will win you over more than any great sex scene.

Downsizing isn’t merely romantic, sweet and funny, it’s also gorgeous to look at. Payne and his go to cameraman Phedon Papamichael have created their best looking work together to date. There are wonderfully playful bits with the special effects of everyday things becoming something remarkable and different just from the change in size but then there are also more traditional sights like a beautiful sunset or the lovely rippling waves of a Norwegian Fjord, that somehow feel as inviting on the big screen as they might in real life.

The remarkable ways in which Payne and Papamichael and their team have merged real life beauty and the special effects trickery of their imagined, tiny world is a sheer delight. Little things like Matt Damon carrying over-sized yellow rose to decorate his sad little apartment to the glorious and vast hillsides of Norway have been merged into one sensational visual palette, unlike anything that Alexander Payne has brought to the screen in his previous films.

Downsizing really snuck up on me. As a fan of Alexander Payne I know I shouldn’t be surprised when he makes yet another, charming, warm and intelligent comedy but with all of the sci-fi stuff, I must admit, I was very skeptical. That skepticism actually lasted quite a ways into the film until the full introduction of Hong Chau and then I really became invested in the same way I was from the start of Payne’s previous films like Sideways and the sublime and underrated, The Descendants.

Overcoming my skepticism and winning me over with its charm, Downsizing is now one of my favorite films of 2017. It arrives in theaters in time for Christmas with a wide release set for December 22nd.