Alexander Payne’s latest project, Downsizing, has remained shrouded in mystery until Wednesday, when the Venice Film Festival lifted the veil on the American auteur’s sci-fi satire to largely positive critical acclaim.
The film — which Payne previously told EW is a dramatic comedy that blends hues of Netflix’s Black Mirror anthology series and inspiration from filmmakers like Hal Ashby and Robert Altman — follows a couple (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) who decide to shrink themselves down to mere inches tall, a process honed by scientists in an effort to minimize humanity’s impact on the globe over the next two-to-three-hundred years.
Though Payne has said the film touches on issues of immigration and the environment, many critics have noted the project as a timely release amid a turbulent social and political climate.
“Downsizing is a wonderfully outsized movie for these times if there ever was one,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy writes. “Alexander Payne has taken a conceit heretofore used for gag-oriented sci-fi and comedy, that of shrinking human beings down to the size of a finger, and breathtakingly transformed it into a way of addressing the planet’s overriding long-term issue. Captivating, funny and possessed of a surprise-filled zig-zag structure that makes it impossible to anticipate where it’s headed, this is a deeply humane film that, like the best Hollywood classics, feels both entirely of its moment and timeless. It was a risky roll of the dice, but one that hits the creative jackpot.”
He continues: “The rare director who has never made a bad film, Payne has now arguably created his best one with a work that easily accommodates many moods, flavors, intentions and ambitions.”
A two-time winner and seven-time Oscar nominee, Payne typically unleashes his projects at high profile international festivals ahead of fruitful awards bids, particularly at Cannes (Nebraska, About Schmidt) and TIFF (The Descendants, Sideways), with nearly all of his directorial efforts, starting with Election, landing Oscar nods in their respective years of release. Downsizing — particularly its cast — could be heading toward a similar fate.
While Damon is drawing positive notices for his leading role, reviews also indicate Inherent Vice actress Hong Chau, whose character is described by Collider‘s Brian Formo as “a second hero amongst bad humans” in the shrunken-down world, with “different reasons for wanting to help others” that “lights the way for the rest of the film,” is also poised for a potential breakout in the Best Supporting Actress category. Chau’s performance here has being labeled a standout in the star-heavy production, which also features Laura Dern (her first time working with Payne since Citizen Ruth), Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, Niecy Nash, Margo Martindale, and Udo Kier.
“Hong Chau’s performance is remarkable,” Owen Gleiberman says in his review for Variety. “She starts off as a borderline stereotype — a bitter refugee spitting venom in broken English — and then melts into the film’s most surprising character.”
With fall festival slots slated in Toronto and presumably Telluride (the film is listed as a Canadian premiere on TIFF’s website, and Telluride won’t announce its lineup until the hours before the festival kicks off this weekend), Downsizing — which Payne and Taylor initially began writing roughly a decade ago — could make even more waves if it carries its momentum through the precursor circuit, especially if it nabs more reviews like Xan Brooks’ five-star rave for The Guardian.
“Sometimes it’s true that the best things come in small packages. Particularly when the package is as cram-packed with nourishment as Downsizing, Alexander Payne’s gorgeous, giddy parable of a modern-day Lilliput,” Brooks writes. “What a spry, nuanced, winningly digressive movie this is. No sooner I had it pegged as a jaunty black comedy than it starts folding in elements of dystopian sci-fi, or compassionate human drama. A less polished director might have become lost and confused along the film’s lengthy running-time. But Payne’s handling is perfect. He never puts a foot wrong, rustling up a picture that is as bright as a button and as sharp as a tack. Downsizing contains multitudes. Inside it’s a giant.”
Downsizing is set for domestic release on Dec. 22. Check out what the critics are saying about the film below.
Xan Brooks (The Guardian)
“What a spry, nuanced, winningly digressive movie this is. No sooner I had it pegged as a jaunty black comedy than it starts folding in elements of dystopian sci-fi, or compassionate human drama. A less polished director might have become lost and confused along the film’s lengthy running-time. But Payne’s handling is perfect. He never puts a foot wrong, rustling up a picture that is as bright as a button and as sharp as a tack. Downsizing contains multitudes. Inside it’s a giant.”
Todd McCarthy (The Hollywood Reporter)
“The rare director who has never made a bad film, Payne has now arguably created his best one with a work that easily accommodates many moods, flavors, intentions and ambitions. At its core, Downsizing grapples head-on with the long-term viability of humanity’s existence on this planet, but with no pretension or preachiness at all, while on a moment-to-moment basis it’s a human comedy dominated by personal foibles and people just trying to get by in life. It’s also a science-fiction film that not for a second looks or feels like one.”
Owen Gleiberman (Variety)
“Payne may be the closest thing we have to a studio-system classicist. His films are built with a craftsmanship so beveled and honed that it’s beyond impeccable, yet that very precision can, at times, rob his movies of spontaneity. Downsizing has a subtly structured arc of redemption, as well as a nifty metaphorical design. It says that our obsession with having a “better life” can reduce us, and that life will always be a stranger journey that the one we thought we were choosing. But the movie, in the end, is more amusing than exhilarating, and what should be its emotional payoff hinges too much (for my taste) on the director’s apocalyptic vision of climate change. Downsizing turns into a movie about saving the human race. But it’s most fun when it’s about saving one man whose life turns out to be bigger than a hill of beans.”
Alonso Duralde (The Wrap)
“The ensemble couldn’t be better, from Damon in paunchy-dork mode (think Contagion rather than Jason Bourne) and a joyously sleazy Waltz to brief but memorable appearances by the likes of Margo Martindale, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Niecy Nash, Kerri Kenney and Neil Patrick Harris. If there’s a standout here, it’s Chau, taking a character who could easily have been a saintly martyr and making her funny, bristly, moving and occasionally profane. As awards season kicks up, she should definitely be part of the conversation. Downsizing sees Payne and Taylor working on a larger palette than usual, but like their shrunken characters, the filmmakers’ humor and their sharp observation of the human condition have survived the change in size and scope.”
Brian Formo (Collider)
“There are lots of sight gags for the process of becoming small, so much so, that on the surface, Downsizing feels like a live-action, adult Pixar movie (except with full frontal male nudity). Despite these imaginative moments, inside Downsizing there’s the beating heart of a Frank Capra movie. It’s static and fairly on-the-nose with lessons learned, but it’s sweet… Downsizing is a film that is at its best when it’s forward thinking, but it feels very sterile with its human interactions because the world has been built so large it has very little time to define the tiny people outside of very broad strokes. The characters are thusly very old-fashioned in idealist vs. hedonist and the tone never fully settles. (I’d rather continue on the conveyer belt of ideas and worlds rather than spend much time with most of the characters.) The mish-mash of Downsizing’s world with its method of storytelling doesn’t work entirely, but there are moments of fabulous satire. And sometimes, it is nice to step outside of bleak futures and be reminded that the future would look less bleak if there were more Pauls and Ngoc Lans [Chau’s character] in the world. And that’s something we can all work on regardless of size.”
Zhou-Ning Su (Awards Daily)
“Without going into spoiler territory, the screenplay by Payne and long-time collaborator Jim Taylor is a rich, original piece of work. Building on a gimmick-y premise, it manages to fill the story with heartfelt human substance and ask poignant questions however implausible the context may seem. If such a technology does exist, what kind of people would be rushing to have themselves miniaturized? Would saving the planet be the primary reason that they commit to this? Would a community of the small be as utopian as suggested or would familiar human vice find a way to fuck that up as well? Ultimately, Paul’s fanciful and often unexpected journey is one about finding our purpose in life. With not particularly subtle but nonetheless eloquent, affecting strokes, Downsizing proposes a surprisingly modest vision that touches a nerve in spite of – or perhaps because of – the outrageous set-up.”
Robbie Collin (The Telegraph)
“Now working as a house cleaner in Leisureland’s glossier enclaves, her friendship with Paul opens his eyes to the lives of the legions have-nots he hadn’t noticed from his bubble (call it Honey, I Shrunk My Privilege). This section feels a little wide-eyed at times, but it’s rescued from mawkishness by some well-placed jabs of dry humour and a terrifically appealing performance from Chau, whose character’s snappy matter-of-factness beautifully complements Damon’s nicely pitched bluff affability. Their chemistry turbo-charges the film through its increasingly foreboding final stretch, in which the fate of humanity (really!) hangs in the balance. Downsizing’s suggestion that a healthier worldview might only be a bizarre physical transformation away unquestionably has something of Avatar about it. But our better selves here aren’t slender blue aliens – they’re just us, freshly equipped with an unsparing awareness of what we actually amount to, and a resolve to make our being here worthwhile nevertheless. Contrary to the teachings of another famous childhood ditty, Payne’s film thrills to the idea that it may not be such a small world after all.”