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“Downsizing” is a very different sort of outing for Alexander Payne

Watching the changing winds in terms of Downsizing has been fascinating this awards season. Initially, out of the Venice Film Festival, it was looked at as a big time Oscar player. Then, moving on to the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, its star faded. This week, Alexander Payne’s latest opens and hopes to right the ship with the general public. Critics have not been kind overall, but audiences will have the final say. Either way, what was once a conceivable Academy Award frontrunner will now struggle not to be shut out. My how times can change in a hurry.

The film is a rather high concept dramedy with a science fiction baseline to launch things. The official synopsis presents things as such: “When scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to over-population, Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in order to get small and move to a new downsized community — a choice that triggers life-changing adventures.” That’s an accurate description, though only for the first act. After that, once Paul is shrunken, he spends a lot of time doing nothing with irritating characters like Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz). However, before things end, he’ll have gone on an adventure with divisive character Gong Jiang (Hong Chau), who change his outlook on life. The longer it goes on, the less interesting it gets, frankly. Payne co-writes with longtime partner Jim Taylor and directs here. The top tier supporting cast includes Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris, Rolf Lassgard, Udo Kier, Margo Martindale, and Jason Sudeikis, among others. Phedon Papamichael handles the cinematography, while Rolfe Kent provides the score.

Unfortunately, the movie does not work at all. It gives me no pleasure to write that, as I’m a huge Payne fan. The premise is solid, but the execution is so bland and tone deaf, you’ll be bored before you know it. Damon is wasted, not to mention Wiig, while Chau and Waltz have divisive performances, and that’s putting it mildly. The latter is more or less doing his normal schtick, while the former is good, though turning in work on a character that could be seen as a racial stereotype. For something Payne has been trying to make for years, it just feels like sloppy and throwaway work.

Awards wise, Downsizing has seen its fortunes plummet in a big way. Paramount really only has Hong Chau to push, though they have an across the board campaign still going. Efforts in Best Picture, Best Director (for Payne), Best Actor (for Damon), Best Supporting Actor (for Waltz), Best Supporting Actress (for Wiig), Best Original Screenplay (for Payne and Taylor), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Score, Best Original Song, and Best Visual Effects seem like long shots at best. It’ll be Chau in Supporting Actress or bust here.

Here is how I would rank Payne’s filmography to date:

7. Downsizing
6. Citizen Ruth
5. Sideways
4. Nebraska
3. The Descendants
2. About Schmidt
1. Election

On Friday, audiences can start to see Downsizing for themselves and make up their own minds. Just be sure to keep expectations decidedly in check. Even big time Payne fans likely will find this one hard to take. There are fans of it, but they’re few and far between at this point. I’m glad he and Taylor finally got to realize this vision. I just wish the final product had been better. We all deserved more out of the idea. Give it a look if you’re curious, but keep in mind that it’s mostly just a curiosity at this point. Alas…

Be sure to check out Downsizing if you’re curious, opening in theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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