Back in the writing saddle with his creative partner Jim Taylor after ceding those duties in 2013’s Nebraska, Alexander Payne moves beyond his usual intimate character studies and goes big by going small in Downsizing, an unexpectedly intelligent commentary full of insightful commentary on modern life, where humanity has been and where it might be going.
Set in a more woke version of our world where people have recognized the perils of overpopulation, the film centers on the titular process developed by a Norwegian scientist (Rolf Lassgård, A Man Called Ove) of shrinking oneself to a few inches tall.
The premise yields a wealth of hilarious sight gags — all of whose special effects mesh seamlessly with their real surroundings — and its promised lifestyle appeals to middle-class married couple Audrey (Kristen Wiig) and Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), especially the prospect of how far their “big people” dollars go in the primo micro-society of Leisureland.
Their new life isn’t what they thought, however, and it’s soon intercut with a shady but well-meaning Russian neighbor (Christoph Waltz) and his peg-legged Vietnamese cleaning lady Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, Inherent Vice), a former political dissident with a fascinating past.
Though it’s initially difficult to know what to do with Ngoc Lan’s heavy accent as far as intentionality on Payne’s part, once Paul stars accompanying her humanitarian efforts and her character becomes more fleshed out, Ngoc Lan’s speech ceases to be a stumbling block and her warmth and humor shine through, cementing Chau’s performance as one of the year’s finest.
Adding another elite filmmaker to his resumé, Damon is at his everyman best and more than atones for his other 2017 efforts, Suburbicon and The Great Wall, while the dull of late Waltz is at his zaniest since 2014’s Big Eyes.
But strong as Downsizing’s acting is, it’s foremost in the service of the creative visuals and witty writing that memorably convey themes of making the most of one’s life and the surprising forms that may take, as well as incorporating important decisions regarding humankind’s fate, all without being preachy.
These are the kinds of grand statements typically made in more blatantly self-important films and textbook Oscar bait, not oddball satirical comedies — exactly how Payne’s been sneaking his particular informed outlook on life into theaters for the past 20some years.
While his latest film’s heavy use of CGI forms a marked departure in many ways from his usual cinematic look, wrapping emotional gut-punches in layers of sharp comedy ground Downsizing as a Payne film, and the combination of the two is a wonder to behold.
Grade: A-minus. Rated R. Now playing at AMC Classic, Biltmore Grande and Carolina Cinemark
(Photo: Paramount Pictures)