Awww... how cute.
Awww... how cute. Paramount Pictures

MOVIE REVIEW: Unexpected twist to quirky Damon comedy

IF YOU saw only the first trailer for Downsizing, you would have certain expectations of what kind movie it will be.

The very different second trailer is the one that gives you a better sense of the film's overall ethos.

With three distinct acts, Downsizing morphs from a quirky comedy to a political commentary to, well, that last part is a bit confusing.

Directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, Downsizing follows a clever concept - as a solution to Earth's overpopulation and dwindling resources, humans can now be shrunk down and live in a miniaturised world. The 36 people involved in the first trial produced only one normal-sized garbage bag of waste in four years.

The procedure is irreversible but it has some great upsides - like how $152,000 of real-world money translates into $12.5 million inside the dome of Leisureland, one of the many downsized planned communities that makes Celebration, that weird Disney town in Florida, seem normal.

If you look closely, that’s a tiny Jason Sudeikis on that cereal box. Supplied by Paramount Pictures.
If you look closely, that’s a tiny Jason Sudeikis on that cereal box. Supplied by Paramount Pictures.

The allure of a giant Barbie dreamhouse-like mansion and $70 diamond bracelets (sold very cheesily by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern) seems like the perfect way to restart for schlubby everyman Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig).

At the last moment, Audrey backs out and Paul, now shrunk from his 1.8m to 12.9cm, has to learn to navigate this new, little world. When he meets his upstairs neighbour, business opportunist and partyboy Dusan (Christoph Waltz), and Dusan's cleaning woman Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), Paul's perspective on his life and his place in the small and big worlds is transformed.

Paul has that American Midwest earnestness and Damon's portrayal is very sympathetic to his character's emotional wounds and confusion. But Chau is the real star with her complex performance of Ngoc, an amputee refugee who refuses to wallow about her crappy lot in life and lives in Leisureland's version of a ghetto. Naturally, even a "utopia" would spawn a largely out-of-sight underclass.

A surprising turn.
A surprising turn. Paramount Pictures

Visually, Downsizing is a delight, especially in the first half, as we're introduced to this smaller universe - it was almost like gazing at the pages of those Richard Scarry books. Seeing Damon scooped up by a fish slice-like tool is an image to savour.

There are loads of interesting strands - like a naysayer's complaints about downsizing's effect on consumer spending, tax revenue and the global economy, or governments' use of the technology against unwilling dissidents - but these aren't really explored beyond a throwaway line or two.

Downsizing had all the marks of a Payne movie, a director best known for his unconventional dramedies such as Election, About Schmidt, Sideways and The Descendants. Like his previous work, Downsizing depicts pain in its various forms - emotional pain, physical pain (Paul is an occupational therapist) and environmental pain.

Environmentalism is the master idea underpinning the movie but it's when Payne goes big, aiming for higher conceits and moving away from the personal, that the film starts to waver.

The tonal shifts between its arcs are abrupt and clumsily handled and the final third in particular (hinted at in the second trailer) loses its way in trying to say something meaningful about human legacy and being part of something outsized. The poignancy and ambition were there, even if the execution didn't always hit the mark.

Despite that, there's enough in this smart, original work to really get you thinking about its ideas.

Rating: 3/5

Downsizing is in cinemas from Boxing Day.

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