The films of Alexander Payne are sublime; deeply felt films about Americans at crossroads in life brought upon usually by an accident, a celebration or fate, exposing the flaws and yet humanity in the characters to perfection. He has directed Jack Nicholson, Kathy Bates, Laura Dean, Reese Witherspoon, Paul Giamatti, Virginia Madsen, Thomas Church Haden, Sandra Oh, George Clooney, Shailene Woolley, June Squibb, and Bruce Dern in some of the finest work in their respective careers. Seven of those remarkable actors have earned Academy Award nominations under his direction, and he has been nominated for Best Director three times, winner twice for his screenplays for Sideways (2004) and The Descendants (2004). Many other actors should have been nominees for their work but were passed over, most notably Giamatti in Sideways (2004).
With his new, Downsizing, film he steps into different (but is it truly?) seemingly different ground merging his wonderful studies of America and Americana with a modern day The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) though this time the shrinking is essential, and the promised utopia is not so different from real life.
With population threatening humanity, a breakthrough in Norway allows scientists to downsize people, shrinking them to all of five inches. Their net worth increases dramatically, and they live in domed areas that are like small paradises, at least for those with money.
Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife, struggling to get a mortgage in the not so distant future decide that to downsize will morose their lives. Paul goes through with it, but his wife freaks out and backs out, leaving him five inches tall as she files for divorce. Suddenly the life of wealth he had planned is one, and he is forced to work in a job he despises.
Trying to make this new life work a chance encounter with a Vietnamese cleaning lady alters the course of his life. He learns that there is a whole other world out there under the dome, one that is no kind of paradise at all. Huge tenements, slums house thousands of the less fortunate, including this bossy kind cleaning lady about to change Paul’s life. She takes him among the poor to treat them, thinking him to be a doctor, and they become first friends, then very much more.
You will not be prepared for where this film goes in its quest for a better humanity. By far the boldest film Payne has made, it is a remarkable work defined by its daring.
In the breathtakingly performance of the soulful cleaning lady Hong Chau is simply magnificent, giving the films its vibrant soul. Caring for others more than she does herself, she takes care of the many in the tenement house, and guides Paul to find himself and the soul he thought he lost. Here is the front-runner for supporting actress, a stunning performance.
Christopher Waltz shines as the gleefully decadent neighbor who leads Paul on the greatest adventure of his life, a journey into the very best of humanity, those who believe in it. Look for Oscar attention all around.