VENICE, Italy — For the past several years, the Toronto International Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival have been engaged in a wonderfully petty proxy war of sorts, with the two jockeying over which Oscar-bait films will premiere at their fest first. Amid the heavy posturing, the Venice Film Festival emerged as a premier destination for prestige, award-worthy cinema.
Unlike Cannes or Sundance, whose opening-night film slots have been reduced to industry punchlines, Venice has garnered a reputation for kicking things off with a bang. Gravity, Birdman, Spotlight, and La La Land were the last four films to open Venice. All received Best Picture Oscar nods, and two—Birdman, Spotlight—took home the gold.
The 74th edition of the Venice Film Festival, running Aug. 30 to Sept. 9 on the Lido, kicked things off with Downsizing, the latest feature from acclaimed filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose last three movies all received Best Picture Oscar nominations.
I am sad to report that both his and Venice’s winning streaks have finally come to an end.
At the outset, Downsizing presents itself as an absurdist satire in the vein of Mike Judge. Six years ago, a scientific facility in Bergen, Norway, discovered the ability to shrink humans down to 5 inches tall, thereby reducing mankind’s drain on Earth’s resources. In order to mitigate the effects of climate change and dearth of natural resources, the aforementioned Edvardsen Institute proposes a 200-year program wherein man will become miniaturized, thus ensuring the survival of the species for millennia to come.
While some enjoy the back-patting that comes with helping save the planet, many are drawn to the concept of “downsizing” for its quality-of-life benefits. You see, once you downsize, everything is in miniature, so that $152,000 nest egg you’ve scrimped and saved your whole life to amass is worth tens of millions at a place like Leisureland, one of many miniature communities that have (thanks in part to federal tax credits) sprouted up in the wake of the Norwegians’ scientific breakthrough.
Enter Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig), a working-class couple from Omaha, Nebraska, who are underwater on their mortgage and dream of a better life. Paul, a sometime occupational therapist, works as a manager at Omaha Steaks, where he’s contributing mightily to the pending climate catastrophe, while Audrey is incredibly similar to the discontented wife Wiig played in Judge’s Extract. The couple decide to go through with the cutting-edge procedure, coaxed by a pair of corporate hucksters (Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern)—when Paul wakes up post-op he discovers that Audrey chickened out, leaving him solo in this mini-Eden.
It’s here where Payne’s film, co-written with longtime collaborator Jim Taylor, loses its way. What could have been a roguish send-up of marriage, technology, and all that falls in between is reduced to a cloying feel-good fable about reciprocal altruism in the face of total annihilation.
Having been abandoned by his partner, Paul sets off on one of those oh-so-Hollywood journeys of self-discovery, encountering a series of outsize characters along the way. There is Dusan (Christoph Waltz, deliciously extra), a Serbian smuggler with a penchant for drug-fueled all-night parties in his penthouse suite, and Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, extraordinary), a cleaning company owner who resides in a dilapidated tenement on the outskirts of Leisureland populated by the (predominately Hispanic) mini-forgotten. Paul, a mild-mannered do-gooder type in the Jimmy Stewart mold, finds himself drawn to Ngoc Lan, a Vietnamese dissident with an amputated leg who, by providing food and aid to those in her downtrodden community, teaches him what it means to be human.
There is no one better than Payne at capturing the plight of the misanthrope—a cornered man (or woman) lashing out at the world for its perceived injustices. These characters, from pro-choice activist Ruth Stoops in Citizen Ruth to the senile Woody Grant in Nebraska, share DNA with the comedic persona of Jon Stewart: a working-class hero raging against the machine. But Payne also has a sentimentalist streak that can, as in The Descendants, muddy his insightful commentary. Damon is also at his best portraying charming scoundrels (see: Dogma, The Talented Mr. Ripley) and at his worst when he succumbs to Hallmark mawkishness (The Promised Land, We Bought a Zoo). With Downsizing, both director and star have given in to their more frustrating impulses. Let’s hope they rediscover their mean streak. The world will be all the better for it.
Downsizing opens in theaters Dec. 22.