Downsizing movie review: Mini Matt Damon a big hit in clever satire
For over two decades, writer and director Alexander Payne has haunted the fringes of mainstream American cinema, making playful satires that blend humour and disaster to telling effect.
His output has been intermittent: I loved Election, his 1996 film about a highly contentious high school presidential vote, and his 2004 indie comedy Sideways, which dramatised a disastrous tour of California's wine country.
The Academy love him: he won an Oscar for his Sideways screenplay, and got the nod again in 2011 with The Descendants, his moving but slightly diffuse Hawaiian drama starring George Clooney as a man who finds out that his now comatose wife has been having an affair.
That's a typical Payne plot twist: his characters are frequently subjected to the trials of Job, and are then expected to see the funny side of them. In Downsizing, Matt Damon is the Job in question, a mild-mannered Omaha occupational therapist who embarks on a terrifying adventure courtesy of a scientific miracle. In an amusing prologue, we find out how a Norwegian scientist called Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) invented a way of shrinking people to a height of five inches.
Dr Asbjornsen's motives are high-minded: if humanity radically reduces its size, it will also shrink its environmental footprint and possibly save the future of the planet. But as the shrinking craze catches on across the globe, a baser motive prevails: if you get small, and move into one of the luxury mini-cities, you can live like a king in your own McMansion.
After giving it some thought, Paul Safranek (Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to give it a go. They struggle financially and would like to move to a 'bigger' house: their life to date has been a series of minor disappointments, and shrinking down will give them the chance to start anew. That's the plan, anyway, but when Paul and Audrey sell up in Omaha and travel to the outskirts of Las Vegas to begin the shrinking process and relocate to their new, tiny town, things don't exactly go according to plan.
Due to an unfortunate chain of events we won't go into, Paul ends up in this latter-day Lilliput alone, is forced to sell his sprawling mini-mansion and ends up surveying this strange new world from the balcony of a modest apartment. There he meets a charismatic neighbour called Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz), a jovial Serbian playboy who got small in order to make a fortune importing luxury goods from the big world. Paul also discovers that social inequality has survived the shrinking process intact, and becomes entangled in the fate of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese cleaning woman who lives in a shanty slum on the edge of town. She bosses Paul around like there's no tomorrow, but will be his saviour in more ways than one.
It's a delightfully ambitious scenario, even by Payne's standards, and Downsizing does meander somewhat as it nears its end. But it never becomes boring, and is full of ingenious ideas and moments of pure comedy. Mid-sized, chunky, handsome but not excessively so, Damon has always been a good everyman, and he's never looked more ordinary than he does here.
Paul Safranek has a permanently disappointed look, an innate and self-fulfilling pessimism, and stoically endures all that Payne throws at him.
The shrinking process is imagined in hilarious detail: before they're zapped down to five inches, subjects must be totally shaved and have all implants and dental work removed - a giant filling would blow your head off.
Christoph Waltz is brilliant as the flippant but kindly Mirkovic, who finds Paul's bovine passivity an endless source of mirth, and regularly undercuts any tendencies the film might have had to take itself too seriously. And Hong Chau was unlucky to miss out on a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of Ngoc Lan Tran, a fiercely pragmatic survivor who rouses Paul from his bourgeois melancholy, and teaches him how to live.
Downsizing (15A, 135mins)