Alexander Payne has had a hell of a run. Since the breakout success of 1999’s Election, he’s directed Jack Nicholson in the Oscar-nominated About Schmidt, sent sales of Merlot into a downward spiral with the brilliant Sideways, somehow topped all three with the hilarious, heartbreaking The Descendants, and, most recently, brought a tear to my eye with the crushingly sad Nebraska.
He’s carved out a reputation for fiercely intelligent, bitter-sweet comedies in which people rail impotently against the absurdity of life, wistful depictions of disappointment and loss that highlight the importance of snatching life’s fleeting moments of happiness.
His new film, Downsizing, is a break from the ostensibly drab realism of his recent films. Its premise, that people can choose to shrink themselves to five inches tall in order to cut down on consumption of resources, therefore leading more lavish lifestyles, sounds more like a Charlie Kaufman pitch than one from Alexander Payne. But it’s also his most conventional work in years, with the gloss of special effects papering over a script that’s a little too on the nose, its commentary on consumerism verging dangerously close to preachy.
Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play Paul and Audrey Safranek, a couple scraping by, neither winners nor losers in the game of life, comfortable but discontented. All around them are tiny little people leading apparently wonderful lives, travelling in bijou first-class compartments and living in lavish doll-house mansions in hermetically-sealed micro-towns. While “miniaturisation” was created by idealistic Norwegian scientists as a way to save humanity from itself, it has been co-opted by luxury lifestyle brands, who will liquidate a person’s assets and make them relative millionaires in their new, downsized lives.
The bland utopia of Leisureland, of course, is not all it’s cracked up to be. Behind the facade of glamorous parties and tiny designer dresses are all the faults and foibles of regular society. You can’t run away from yourself, yeah? Christoph Waltz plays a wonderfully oily smuggler, getting rich peddling drugs and bootleg booze. When his all-night parties finally come to a close, tiny east Asian maids arrive to clean up. Meanwhile, governments are using the technology to shrink political dissidents, and little refugees are smuggling themselves around the world in TV boxes.
As I said, it’s all a bit on the nose. In lieu of his usual deep characterisation, Payne concentrates his efforts on visual flourishes; there’s a great perspective shot of Matt Damon shrinking as he walks down a long corridor on his way to the miniaturisation ward, and little details like the way the nurses scoop up unconscious downsizers on little spatulas are a reminder that a thoughtful, talented director is at work.
But nice as these trappings are, they’re no substitute for the unfiltered, joyous, depressing examination of the human condition that’s made Payne such an essential director.