Alexander Payne: the director’s career from ‘Election’ to ‘Downsizing’

Promotional feature with Paramount

Alexander Payne’s balance of light and dark is almost unmatched in cinema. He makes movies that deal with brutal human situations – nervous breakdowns, death, sickness, midlife crises – but with a warmth and humour that make them more uplifting than nihilistic. He presents life in all its happiness and sadness. Payne’s latest, Downsizing, sees him in a light mood and brings together some of his favourite themes.

Middle-aged men stuck in a rut are a common occurrence in Payne’s films. In his breakthrough, Election, it was Matthew Broderick as a downtrodden teacher locked in battle with a super-confident pupil (Reese Witherspoon). In Sideways, it was Paul Giamatti as a wine-loving misanthrope facing up to the second part of his life. In Downsizing, Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, a man whose life is completely… OK. He has a loving wife, a job he’s good at and a roof over his head, but it’s a roof he can barely afford and the job is not the one he dreamt of. Everything’s just about fine, but he’d like things to be more than fine. He opts to downsize, which in this movie means not just moving to a smaller house but being shrunk to about the size of a mouse, then put in a special miniature city, Leisureland. There he is instantly a much wealthier man, able to live in relative luxury, because tiny houses cost tiny sums. Not everything goes to plan, but as is common in Payne films, Paul comes to realise that what he thinks he wants might not actually be the best thing for him. By the end of the movie he’s a completely different man, emotionally as well as physically.

Payne is also known for assembling astonishingly talented casts and nurturing new talent. He’s worked with Jack Nicholson (About Schmidt), George Clooney (The Descendants) and Laura Dern (Citizen Ruth). He spotted the comic depths of Reese Witherspoon early in her career, casting her as Election’s ruthlessly ambitious Tracy Flick. He gave Shailene Woodley her star-making role as Clooney’s disaffected daughter in The Descendants. In Downsizing, he introduces cinema audiences to the skills of Hong Chau, a little-known actor who nails the role of Ngoc Lan Tran, a disabled Vietnamese refugee who makes the most of life, even as it keeps throwing obstacles in her way. She stands shoulder to shoulder with a cast that features Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz and Jason Sudeikis, plus Laura Dern and Neil Patrick Harris in cameo roles. It’s filled to bursting with comic talent.

Downsizing is Alexander Payne’s 14th film in 21 years of directing. Payne, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (SidewaysThe Descendants), writes terrific characters who find themselves in situations that everybody can relate to, even if they’re not a middle-aged man – and that’s what makes his films so successful. In his movies, people feel doubt about their choices and disappointment with some of their decisions, but Payne always sends you home with a positive message: it’s never too late to change.