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17th of January 2018


Alexander Payne on the long and the short of Downsizing

Somewhere between Venice and Toronto, Downsizing shrank. Alexander Payne’s Swiftian satire about a world where people can be reduced to a few inches tall opened the Venice festival on August 30 to rapturous applause and glowing reviews. But a week and a half later, it had a much more subdued premiere at the Toronto festival, greeted with the equivalent of a shrug.

Critics found it messy and unfocused, and remain divided on whether Hong Chau’s portrayal of a Vietnamese activist was an acting coup or a racial stereotype. (On the plus side, she’s been nominated as Best Supporting Actress by the Screen Actors Guild, the Broadcast Film Critics and the Hollywood Foreign Press.) The film would also find its way into the National Board of Review’s top 10 list for 2017, but has few other critical plaudits.

Speaking in Toronto a few days after that festival’s screening, Payne still seems to be figuring out the movie he’s been working on in one way or another since 2006. That was when his writing partner Jim Taylor approached him with the shrinking idea, which he and his brother had been kicking around as a fantastical way of living more cheaply. (Imagine the reduction in food bills!)

“It’s a comedy about miniaturization,” he says, trying to pigeonhole the project. “It’s neither a broad comedy nor a science-fiction, but a little of both. We followed our noses. We didn’t consciously avoid a broad comedy, the way free jazz avoids melody.”

He was also caught between an impulse to make a political statement, and the desire to just make art. “I always tell myself I’m making a comedy,” he says of all his films, which include The Descendants, Sideways and Election.

All of which might explain why audiences are having a difficult time deciding just what it is they’re watching in Downsizing. The first third of the film is very much in the science-fiction mould, with middle-class everyman Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) learning about the new world of living large by getting small, and deciding to take the plunge. It’s intricately explained and shown. Says Payne: “I wanted the effects to be so realistic as to be almost banal.”

After that, the movie spends a great deal of time with Paul in his new home, a community where everyone is tiny. Perhaps not surprisingly, he finds that many of the problems of the bigger world – racial inequality, get-rich-quick schemes, etc. – have followed him there.

Payne has a history of casting unlikely actors as, as he puts it, “middle-class schmucks.” Think of Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt; leading-man George Clooney in The Descendants; or comedian Will Forte in Nebraska. “A star everyman” is how he describes the type, although in the case of Damon’s character, “this one’s more of a people-pleaser.”

A science-fiction about miniaturization and a broad comedy about its results is ambitious enough for any film, but Downsizing also includes an environmental message, as the process is seen as a way for humans to reduce the size of their footprint on the planet, literally as well as environmentally. “As writers we do not begin with themes,” says Payne when asked about the multiple layers at play in Downsizing. “The themes come as we deal with the story.”

And so he returns to defining his latest work, returning Toronto’s shrug with one of his own. “I dunno; I just make them,” he says of his films. “It’s a road trip through life, through some version of the modern world.” A pause: “It’s just a comedy. It’s kind of breezy in a way.” The humour puts him in mind of a quote he attributes to Oscar Wilde: “When you tell people the truth you have to make them laugh at the same time or else they’ll kill you.”

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