Downsizing has generated jumbo-sized buzz at the Venice Film Festival — not least as viewers debate how to describe it.
Is it a science fiction film, a romantic comedy, a political parable, an apocalyptic thriller? Alexander Payne's movie mixes all those elements in its story of a man, played by Matt Damon, who tries to solve his problems by shrinking himself.
Damon and co-stars Kristen Wiig and Hong Chau joined Payne on the red carpet for the film's Venice premiere Wednesday — the first of 11 days of galas that will bring stars including George Clooney and Jennifer Lawrence to the canal-crossed Italian city.
The Venice opening-night slot has become coveted by filmmakers hoping to make a splash come awards season. Several recent Venice openers, including Gravity and La La Land, have gone on to win multiple Academy Awards.
Downsizing has ingredients that could help it strike a similar chord with audiences and awards voters: a likable, bankable star in Damon; a strong supporting cast that includes Wiig and Christophe Waltz; and an imaginative story laced with compassion and humor.
Payne says despite its sci-fi premise and international canvas, Downsizing is not so different to the films he's best known for — funny-sad stories of middle-aged or Midwestern strugglers such as About Schmidt, Sideways and Nebraska.
"It has the same sense of humor and basically the same tone," Payne told reporters in Venice on Wednesday.
The movie applies Payne's wry eye for human foibles to a plot that explores the power and limits of science and the threat of environmental catastrophe.
The script by Payne and Jim Taylor opens with a Norwegian scientist making a breakthrough he thinks will save humanity: a technique that can shrink people to 5 inches (12 centimeters) tall. That means they use a tiny fraction of the resources they once did — and need to pay less, allowing people of modest means to grow instantly rich by becoming small.
The movie has fun imagining what the miniaturized world would be like, as Damon goes to live in a luxury micro-city, a sort of retirement community for the tiny.
Then it takes a serious turn to ask whether science could be humanity's salvation, or whether stubbornly fallible human nature is likely to be our species' undoing.
Along the way, a movie that started in the familiar Payne territory of Omaha, Nebraska, takes viewers all the way to an underground bunker in a Norwegian fjord.
Many will find the journey unexpected, but reviewers in Venice were mostly happy to be swept along for the ride. The Guardian called the film a "spry, nuanced, winningly digressive movie," while the Hollywood Reporter said it was "captivating, funny" and "deeply humane."
Ultimately, the film rests on Payne's knack for depicting human relationships. Damon's Paul becomes friends with a louche European neighbor, played by Waltz, and develops feelings for Ngoc Lan, a former Vietnamese political prisoner working as a house cleaner.
Actress Hong Chau (Treme, Inherent Vice) is already being talked of as a potential awards nominee for her performance as the spirited, complex character.
"This is a character that is normally in the background, that is low-status character in the culture, and not one that you typically see in the forefront of a story," she said.
Downsizing is the latest ordinary-Joe role for Damon, who exudes a likable everyman-under-duress quality whether he's action hero Jason Bourne or a stranded astronaut in The Martian.
Damon said he thinks movies "are the greatest tool for empathy that we have."
"What I love about this — what I love about a lot of these stories that I get to help tell — is it shows a relatable character whose life is different from our own but who we find common cause with," he said. "This is a beautiful and optimistic movie. A journalist said to me, which I thought was really great: `This is Alexander's most optimistic movie and it has the apocalypse in it."'
The film has been in the works for a decade, but in an AP interview, Damon said its environmental theme felt "torn from the headlines."
"Though the [U.S.] administration wouldn't say that," he added. "They're not acknowledging climate change as a reality."