Dual Oscar-winner Alexander Payne is a superb film maker as ABOUT SCHMIDT : NEBRASKA and SIDEWAYS will testify.  His latest work is titled DOWNSIZING and this is possibly his most ambitious satire on the human condition.  A bracing, whip-smart and darkly comedic take on a future answer to the world’s overpopulation woes.


A Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) has perfected a process to safely reduce the size of a human being by a ratio of 2744 to 1 and at a conference on planetary sustainability in Istanbul he staggers the world when he and his wife are brought in to the stage in a small box and revealed to be less than five inches in height.


The benefits to the earth are obvious.  ‘Minimized’ people leave scarcely any footprint on the planet, take up far less space, need less food, generate almost infinitesimal amounts of non-compostable refuse.  And for those not overly environmentally-minded, the benefits for their lifestyles are gargantuan.  A couple with assets of $150,000 will find that they have $12 million and can afford vast and lavish mansions.  Dr. Asbjornsen’s wife shows off her flawless diamond bracelets, necklace and earrings that cost $83 (or as the good doctor smilingly remarks “That is our entire food bill for two months.”)


Paul Safranek (Matt Damon at his everyman best) is an occupational therapist who lives in Omaha with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig).  At a school reunion, they meet their BFF’s (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe) who have downsized and are filled with praise for the process.  They live in Leisureland, a specially made community with golf courses, swimming pools and elegant homes covered by a clear dome (birds and insects need to be kept well at bay.) 


Beset by mon ey worries and career dissatisfactions, the Safraneks decide to undertake the process. To be fair, at this point there are spoilers that if revealed would diminish the viewing. S uffice to say that after a year, Paul is not as enamored with his new miniature life as expected.  He has two Eurotrash hedonists Dusan (Christoph Waltz) and Joris (Udo Kier) as neighbors who enmesh him in a world of sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll and upon waking blearily one morning in their living room he meets Ngoc Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident with a prosthetic leg who cleans the houses of the affluent and she changes his worldview radically.


Of course the brave new world of ‘cellular miniaturization’ has its downsides (no pun intended).  Externally it is being misused by African dictators who shrink their rivals and Homeland Security in America is deeply concerned about pocket-sized terrorists entering the nation.  But it is the idyllic Lilliput of Leisureland and other domed communities that speak loudest about the human condition.  They are simply America in microcosm and still prone to cases of loneliness, discord, wealth-disparity, corruption and injustice.


It is increasingly difficult to elaborate further into the plot as the success of this film is best achieved by entering with no preconceptions or considerable foreknowledge.  All six of Payne’s previous films focus on characters at a crossroads of existence who are grabbing at intangible dreams and this, despite the atypical dystopian sci-fi format, is no exception.


There are some extraordinary talents at work here. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael and Production Design expert Stefania Cella combine with a dazzlingly skilled visual effects team to bring the fantasy to believable life.  Hong Chau (you may know her from INHERENT VICE or TREME) has already been nominated for both a Golden Globe and a Screen Actor’s Guild award for her supporting role in this film and I suspect there will be more.  Matt Damon is a superb player who can take a character that is quintessentially bland and predictably decent and make him intriguing and compelling.


Their scenes together are wonderfully executed.  Payne co-wrote with Jim Taylor and there is deftness to the dialogue that holds multi ideas in some short and concise lines.   



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