Alexander Payne’s latest offering is a peculiar movie that never seems to be sure whether it wants to be a scathing diatribe, a kinky satire or a sweet romance. It moves from one to the other without warning, but the end result is nevertheless provocative and heart-warming – in a cheesy way. In the not-too-distant future, scientists have discovered a way to deal with the planet’s pressing problem of over-population by shrinking people to a tiny size. Sadly, Payne is probably right in his assumption that humanity would prefer to go to such an extreme rather than change its ways in attempting to avert environmental catastrophe. Paul and his wife Audrey (Matt Damon, Kirstin Wiig) book their place in the brave new world of Leisureland but something unforeseen mars the dream. It’s not until Paul takes up with his neighbour, Dusan (Christoph Waltz, as perfectly suited to playing the louche eccentric as Damon is to being your Average Joe), that the film starts to look at cracks in the mini-Utopia. After a psychedelic party at Dusan’s, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese woman who has come to clean Dusan’s apartment. That there would be an underclass in this perfect world had not occurred to Paul. The scenes that feature those who have converted to smallness mixing with the big people are well done, but it’s hard not to snigger and think that nobody in their right mind would do such a thing, no matter how cheap housing was in Lilliput. Predictably, the PC vigilantes have taken Payne to task for what they see as the caricature of Tran, but having worked with Vietnamese I think she is a delight. A visual joke about Little Tommy contracting syphilis is on the icky side, however, and the sight of Paul massaging the stump of what is left of Tran’s leg is too comical to be tender. But if the tone of the film is uncertain, its moral is clear – our ultimate reward lies in helping others, not seeking a fool’s paradise.
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