2017 Awards Profile: Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ from Paramount Pictures

Welcome to the 2017 Awards Profile series, where we talk about high- and low-profile films coming to a theater near you at some point this year. We will analyze the potential for these films to be players for the Academy Awards, and while many of these have the potential to be recognized, many will not, either by quality or being pushed back to the following year. For the next few weeks, we will bring you a film every Monday and Wednesday to talk about their potential. If you have a suggestion, please include it in the comments below. If you missed a film, click on the tag or category Awards Profile.

FILM: “Downsizing”
PRODUCERS: Per Henry Borch, Jim Burke, Megan Ellison, Mark Johnson, Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
DISTRIBUTOR: Paramount Pictures

DIRECTOR: Alexander Payne
WRITER: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
CAST: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Laura Dern, Alec Baldwin, Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis, Neil Patrick Harris, Margo Martindale, Niecy Nash

SYNOPSIS (via iMDB): A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.

WHY IT MIGHT SUCCEED: The Oscars love Alexander Payne. The writer/director managed to create some of the most biting comedies of the ’90s in “Citizen Ruth” and “Election.” The new millennium brought the indie filmmaker to the mainstream. His 2002 film “About Schmidt” drew two Oscar nominations for his actors, Jack Nicholson and Kathy Bates. Two years later, “Sideways” won Payne the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. In addition, it reaped five nominations – Picture, Director (Payne), Supporting Actor (Thomas Haden Church), Supporting Actress (Virginia Madsen) and Original Screenplay. Since that film, all of his other feature films have been nominated for Best Picture. In total, Payne has won two awards for writing. The Oscars seem to love him. This puts him in a good place to win Picture or Director the next time he hits one out of the park.

The cast assembled for this project makes it quite a heavy hitter. Matt Damon has always been a commercial actor. However, he was brilliantly able to blend humor and gravitas in his Oscar-nominated performance for “The Martian.” If he taps into a similar tone, he could be perfect for a Payne vehicle. The last time Payne gave a leading role to a matinee idol, George Clooney gave one of his career best performances in “The Descendants,” which also earned one Oscar win and four other nominations. Kristen Wiig has proven herself to be a formidable actress, not just a comedienne. From her breakout role in “Bridesmaids” to dramatic work in “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Wiig has done more than her fair share to earn an acting Oscar nomination here. 

The supporting cast is just as deep. Laura Dern is having one of the busiest years of her career on both TV (“Big Little Lies,” “Twin Peaks”) and film (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” among others). If there’s enough meat to her role, this could net her a third nomination. This should be a fitting reunion, after Dern starred in Payne’s early film “Citizen Ruth.” After perfecting his Donald Trump impression, audiences seem to be very fond of Alec Baldwin. He could ride this wave to his second nomination. Lastly, you can never count out a two-time Oscar winner. If Christoph Waltz takes on another juicy villain role, there’s no telling how far he will go.

Alexander Payne movies aren’t often known for their elaborate visual set pieces. However, with this film dealing with shrinking, there are many exciting visual prospects. Payne has always been one for visual humor. His use of perspective here could boost the film’s chances in below-the-line categories. The film’s cinematographer, Phedon Papamichael, reaped his only Oscar nomination for Payne’s “Nebraska.” While that film snuck in on the black and white photography, forced perspective in this film could get him back to the ceremony. Editor Kevin Tent was previously nominated for Payne’s “The Descendants,” likely a result of Best Picture heat. If the film is even more visually arresting, production design and costume design shouldn’t be ruled out as well.

WHY IT MIGHT NOT SUCCEED: Social satire oftentimes needs to have less whimsy and more importance to get up for major Oscars. They either have to deal with hot button issues (“The Kids Are All Right,” “Silver Linings Playbook”), have a darker, more dramatic core (“Philomena,” “Nebraska,” “The Descendants”) or be new highs for famous directors (“Midnight in Paris,” “Grand Budapest Hotel”). It’s possible the film may fit into one of these three categories. However, the initial premise seems more of a goofy lark than a dramatic, important comedy. Consider “Bridesmaids,” a raved about comedy that was neither “topical” nor “dramatic” enough for a Best Picture nomination, even though it featured a good helping of both. Comedies must have the perfect pedigree in order to contend across the board at the Oscars.

Since breaking onto the Oscar scene for “Sideways,” Payne hasn’t missed a Best Picture nomination. However, might the charm have worn off? David O. Russell kept getting de facto nominations after “The Fighter,” until people had enough of him by the time of “Joy.” Perhaps this may be the project people get sick of Alexander Payne.

POTENTIAL OSCAR CATEGORIES IN PLAY:

  • Motion Picture
  • Director – Alexander Payne
  • Lead Actor – Matt Damon
  • Lead Actress – Kristen Wiig
  • Supporting Actor – Alec Baldwin, Christoph Waltz
  • Supporting Actress – Laura Dern
  • Original Screenplay – Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
  • Cinematography – Phedon Papamichael
  • Costume Design – Wendy Chuck
  • Editing – Kevin Tent
  • Production Design – Stefania Cella

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Check out the first official set of
Year-In-Advance Oscar Predictions
and see where “Downsizing” ranks!