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Is Downsizing a Movie Mini-Miracle?

November 10, 2017


downsizingThe opening-night feature of the 2017 Virginia Film Festival, Downsizing concerns a scientific miracle: technology allows human beings to be shrunk, alleviating pressures of overpopulation and pollution. Alexander Payne’s sci-fi dramedy is no less a miracle: a big-budget, mainstream Hollywood studio movie that’s entirely original. This isn’t a superhero flick, a sequel or a reboot — it’s a film of ideas, emotions and three-dimensional characters, even if they are only five inches tall.

At an enlightening Q&A following the screening led by The Washington Post‘s Ann Hornaday, executive producer Mark Johnson (a proud U.Va. alum) discussed the challenges of getting such a cinematic unicorn made. Although Payne’s earlier films like Election and Sideways were ironically much smaller in scale, Paramount was willing to gamble on Downsizing after a huge movie star, Matt Damon, signed on to star. He gives one of his best performances as a profoundly decent man who’s unsatisfied with his workaday life and finds greater meaning only after getting small.

The teeming ensemble includes such big names as Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern (reuniting with her Citizen Ruth director Payne). But the breakout star is Hong Chau, a Taiwan-born, Louisiana-raised actress known for Treme who tackles a truly bizarre role — a one-legged Vietnamese-refugee humanitarian maid with a bracingly brusque personality — and infuses it with heart, humor and sex appeal. I’m not sure what mainstream audiences will make of Downsizing (I loved it, though it’s a bit of a feathered fish), but I will be shocked if Chau doesn’t get an Oscar nomination.Also in the running for an Academy Award nod may be two-time winner Christoph Waltz, who makes Damon’s swinging, selfish neighbor deeply endearing.

The less you know about Downsizing‘s plot, the better. The story takes unexpected turns that some may find jarring but I found exhilarating. Through it all, Payne (and co-writer Jim Taylor) maintain a tricky, delicate tone. Imagine if Frank Capra and Charlie Kaufman had a baby, and you might have some idea what I mean. I hope Downsizing proves to be a gigantic hit, but its very existence gives me hope for the future.

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