Showbiz / TIFF 2017: Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite ‘Downsizing’

TIFF 2017: Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite ‘Downsizing’

Showbiz Sep 13, 2017

We put Matt Damon’s Oscar-buzzy shrinking-man satire Downsizing under the microscope.

One of the most hotly anticipated arrivals heading into this year’s fest was undoubtedly Alexander Payne’s satirical sci-fi Downsizing. Anytime the director of About Schmidt, The Descendants and Nebraska brings a new film to the Toronto International Film Festival, the phrase “Oscar contender” is inevitably on everyone’s lips.

And even if Payne’s name weren’t attached to the picture, it would be attracting attention. Any movie starring Matt Damon as a suburban underachiever who decides to take advantage of a new Norwegian shrink serum to miniaturize himself and start a new, enviro-friendly life of luxury in a colony of fellow shrinkees is going to turn heads based on premise alone. So now that it’s been screened for critics and film buffs at a couple of festivals, is Downsizing primed to absolutely own award season — or have its chances, like its protagonist, shrunk from sight?

1. If nothing else, it’s unique.

From the film’s opening moments, it’s clear we’re looking at a rare, ambitious cinematic vision — visually, thematically and tonally. From six-inch humans mingling with their regular-sized pals at a house party to newly shrunk patients scraped off medical beds with a medical spatula to a tiny yacht hauling giant bottles of Absolut vodka across the open ocean, it’s a strikingly realized world with an endless supply of novel, amusing sight gags. And Payne uses the singular world he’s wrought to quirkily engage with issues as broad as climate change, consumerism, poverty and the inescapability of human nature. There’s a dearth of  silly, satirical sci-fi on the market, and on that front, Downsizing is a welcome arrival.

Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing
Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing: (L–R) Writer/director/producer Alexander Payne, screenwriter Jim Taylor, actors Hong Chau, Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz and executive producer Mark Johnson at the film’s Press Conference at TIFF. Photo Credit: Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage for TIFF

2. A cast of Hollywood giants.

Matt Damon, our finest working everyman actor, brings the expected charm and pathos — plus a bit of sadsack humour — to the role of Paul “please stop mispronouncing my name” Safranek. He’s a man who’s living a comfortable-enough life but can’t shake the feeling he’s missing out on bigger things (pun very much intended). The ensemble around Damon is littered with A-listers (though most amount to little more than cameos). We see Kristen Wiig as Paul’s conflicted wife, Jason Sudeikis as an old high-school pal who convinces Paul to take the plunge into tiny town, Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern as the Barbie-and-Ken-ish li’l couple tasked with pitching prospective customers on the wonders of being small, and — most delightfully — Christoph Waltz as a sleezy yet oddly endearing Serbian entrepreneur who makes his fortune as king of the itty-bitty black market.

Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing
Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing: Matt Damon at the film’s TIFF Press Conference. Photo Credit: George Pimentel/Wireimage for TIFF

3. A master filmmaker experiments with his form.

Payne is a perpetual talking point in the Oscar conversation, thanks to his mastery of small, intimate stories that just happen to be studded with Hollywood megastars. His films probe into the perfectly average angst of everyday life with wit and intelligence, somehow making the mundane enthralling. A widower coming to terms with his wife’s passing by taking an RV cross-country. A husband braces against single-fatherhood while grappling with the revelation of his comatose wife’s infidelity. A son finds common ground with his dementia-addled father on a begrudging road trip. These are the stories that have thus far defined him, and so it’s genuinely fascinating to see Payne incorporate the tropes of science fiction into his deeply grounded, deeply human oeuvre.

Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing
Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing: Writer, director and producer Alexander Payne. Photo Credit: George Pimental/Wireimage for TIFF

4. Soft satire.

And yet, as much as the film marks a departure for its director, at its heart Downsizing is another tender, intimate exploration of a man coming to terms with life’s disappointments — which proves to be at odds with the film’s satirical aspirations. The best satire is sharp, but for all of the social issues it takes aims at, Downsizing is too gentle (and too meandering) to really leave a mark.

Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing
Five Thoughts On Star-Studded Fest Favourite Downsizing: Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. Photo Credit:

5. Modest charms.

With so much to marvel at, it’s disappointing that the result is something less than the sum of its parts. The film breezes along with charming exchanges between talented actors, taking a few chuckle-worthy pot shots at modern American life. But it never quite coalesces into a fully formed exploration of either its protagonist or the social ills it sets out to skewer. For a story that’s all about shrinking the human race, Downsizing is the Payne film with the largest scope and the highest stakes. But in growing bigger, his signature intimacy is diluted. All told, the film feels superficial, and while that surface is a sight to behold, Downsizing isn’t as resonant or memorable as its director’s best efforts.


Main Image Photo Credit: 

Matthew Currie

Matthew Currie


A long-standing entertainment journalist, Currie is a graduate of the Professional Writing program at Toronto’s York University. He has spent the past number of years working as a freelancer for ANOKHI and for diverse publications such as Sharp, TV Week, CAA’s Westworld and BC Business. Currie ...