Friday, January 19, 2018
  • Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017
Alexander Payne's "Downsizing" Spans Varied Genres At Venice Film Fest
Actors Matt Damon, from left, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau and director Alexander Payne pose for photographers at the photo call of the film ‘Downsizing’ during the 74th edition of the Venice Film Festival in Venice, Italy, Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2017. (Photo by Joel Ryan/Invision/AP)
  • VENICE, Italy (AP)
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"Downsizing" has generated jumbo-sized buzz at the Venice Film Festival — not least as viewers debate how to describe it.

Is it a science fiction film, a romantic comedy, a political parable, an apocalyptic thriller? Alexander Payne's movie mixes all those elements in its story of a man, played by Matt Damon, who tries to solve his problems by shrinking himself.

Payne says that despite its sci-fi premise and international canvas, "Downsizing" is not so different to the films he's best known for — funny-sad stories of middle aged or Midwestern strugglers such as "About Schmidt," ''Sideways" and "Nebraska."

"It has the same sense of humor and basically the same tone," Payne told reporters in Venice Wednesday.

That tone alternately puzzled and thrilled viewers in Venice, where the film has its gala premiere in the festival's coveted opening-night spot. Several recent Venice openers, including "Gravity" and "La La Land," have gone on to win multiple Academy Awards.

"Downsizing" has ingredients that could help it strike a similar chord with audiences and awards voters: a likable, bankable star in Damon; a strong supporting cast that includes Kristen Wiig and Christophe Waltz; and an imaginative story laced with compassion and humor.

The movie applies Payne's wry eye for human foibles to a plot that explores the power and limits of science and the threat of environmental catastrophe.

The script by Payne and Jim Taylor opens with a Norwegian scientist making a breakthrough he thinks will save humanity: a technique that can shrink people to 5 inches (12 cm) tall.

That means they use a tiny fraction of the resources they once did — and need to pay less, allowing people of modest means to grow instantly rich by becoming small.

The movie has fun imagining what the miniaturized world would be like, as Damon goes to live in a luxury micro-city, a sort of retirement community for the tiny.

Then it takes a serious turn to ask whether science could be humanity's salvation, or whether stubbornly fallible human nature is likely to be our species' undoing.

Along the way, a movie that started in the familiar Payne territory of Omaha, Nebraska, takes viewers all the way to an underground bunker in a Norwegian fjord.

Many will find the journey unexpected, but reviewers in Venice were mostly happy to be swept along for the ride. The Guardian called the film a "spry, nuanced, winningly digressive movie," while the Hollywood Reporter said it was "captivating, funny" and "deeply humane."

Ultimately, the film rests on Payne's knack for depicting human relationships. Damon's Paul becomes friends with a louche European neighbor, played by Waltz, and develops feelings for Ngoc Lan, a former Vietnamese political prisoner working as a house cleaner.

Actress Hong Chau ("Treme," ''Inherent Vice") is already being talked of as a potential awards nominee for her performance as the spirited and complex character.

"This is a character that is normally in the background, that is low-status character in the culture, and not one that you typically see in the forefront of a story," she said. "That was such a pleasure to be able to read on the page and then also as an actor to be able to portray."

"Downsizing" is the latest ordinary-Joe role for Damon, who exudes a likable everyman-under-duress quality whether he's action hero Jason Bourne or a stranded astronaut in "The Martian."

Damon said he thinks movies "are the greatest tool for empathy that we have."

"What I love about this — what I love about a lot of these stories that I get to help tell — is it shows a relatable character whose life is different from our own but who we find common cause with," he said.

"Ultimately I think this is a beautiful and optimistic movie. A journalist said to me, which I thought was really great: This is Alexander's most optimistic movie, and it has the apocalypse in it.

"I do think at the end of the day there's this sense that we're all in it together."