DOWNSIZING (15) ***

Dir: Alexander Payne
With: Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz
Runtime: 135 minutes

EXPLORING male angst through poignant comedy has become something of a calling for writer-director Alexander Payne. Though his characters may be having full-blown crises, they show their suffering via a modest rearrangement of life’s furniture rather than huffing and puffing and blowing the whole house down around them.
In Sideways, mismatched friends find common ground again via a road trip to Napa Valley; in The Descendants (like Sideways, an Oscar winner), a father (George Clooney) rediscovers the importance of family after his wife is in an accident; and in Nebraska a son learns to accept the difficult father he loves but does not like.
Downsizing finds Payne taking a more ambitious direction, as if having something of a crossroads moment himself. Set in a future America and featuring a plot from science fiction, it is not just about one man’s middle-aged woes but those of the planet. Courageous, certainly. Intriguing, ditto. Successful? Not entirely.
For his leading man this time, Payne has chosen Matt Damon. Now 47, his young buck days of Good Will Hunting long behind him, Damon fits snugly into the role of Mr Middle Aged, Middle America, as if to polo shirts and loafers born. Paul Safranek (Damon) is an occupational therapist who wanted to be a doctor before life, including having to look after an ailing mother, got in the way.
Paul copes with a disappointing present by always trying to look to the future. So when he hears that scientists are exploring a new process called “cellular reduction”, he is all for it. Faced with an overpopulated planet where too much strain is being placed on limited resources, the men and women in white coats reckon the answer is to shrink humans to five inches tall. Smaller bodies mean more to go around, so everyone will have a better life. Put that way, downsizing looks to have no downsides. “Biggest thing since the Moon landing,” Paul reckons.
Cut to ten years later and what was science fiction has become fact. Paul and his wife (Kristen Wiig), unable to afford the home and life they want, and persuaded by an old school buddy that the grass really is greener when you “go small”, sell everything they have and sign up for the programme. What could possibly go wrong?
Payne and his frequent writing partner Jim Taylor (Sideways, About Schmidt, Citizen Ruth, Election) have a lot of fun filling in the details of this new society in which everyone lives in a mansion, there is no need to work and crime is unknown. 
Amusing as this is, matters take a bumpier, more intriguing turn as time passes. Small humans – surprise, surprise – turn out to be as flawed as big ones. Not everyone shares in the bounty, as Paul discovers when he meets Hong (Ngoc Lan Tran), the dirt poor cleaner of Paul’s playboy neighbour Dusan (Christoph Waltz). Hong, a political activist, did not choose to be miniaturised. The big world, meanwhile, is becoming resentful of the small for paying less tax and taking all the jobs. Everything seems different, but nothing has really changed.
By this point, Payne’s picture enters a lull from which it struggles to escape. Damon settles too comfortably into the role of a humdrum kind of guy, dragging the picture down with him. Paul, even when Payne tries his hardest to disprove the notion, is often flat out dull. Matters perk up considerably whenever Lan Tran appears but she is not in the picture nearly enough (ditto Wiig, who puts in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it turn). Dusan is an amusing, international playboy kind of character but we’ve seen Waltz in this mode before.
More of a problem is the picture’s slide into hippy-dippiness. What started as a pleasant enough, whimsical exploration of how humankind might cope in the future begins to take itself too seriously. Big questions are posed – about the meaning of life, what it is to be a good person and so on – but Downsizing struggles to make a meaningful dent in any of it. As guides to life go, Damon’s character is a blank page.
Downsizing is a bold move by Payne, but in making it he only goes to prove what we knew from his previous pictures, that small truly is more beautiful.

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Last Flag Flying (15) ****
Dir: Richard Linklater
With: Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Carell
Runtime: 125 minutes

RICHARD Linklater’s drama has been rather crowded out by the late rush of Oscar contenders receiving their UK releases; a pity as this is an outstanding picture from the director of Boyhood and Before Midnight. Set in 2003 and adapted from Darryl Ponicsan’s novel, it’s the story of three Vietnam vets, played by Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston and Laurence Fishburne, who are reunited in 2003 by the death of one of their sons in Iraq. Carell and company turn in uniformly terrific performances, with the screenplay by Linklater switching between unbearably poignant and laugh-out-loud funny.
GFT till February 1

Early Man (PG) **
Dir: Nick Park
Voices: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston
Runtime: 89 minutes

GOOD old Aardman Animations. The creators of Wallace and Gromit can usually be relied upon for a chuckle. This time, alas, you may struggle to raise a smile while sitting through this dull tale of a Stone Age clan finding themselves adrift in the Bronze Age. There is only one thing that can save Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), his beloved sidekick Hognob (a cross between a dog and a hog) and that is … football. No, didn’t make sense to me either. More of a problem is the lack of good jokes and a shortage of characters to warm to, despite a voice cast that also includes Tom Hiddleston and Maisie “Game of Thrones” Williams.