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After Venice Raves, Alexander Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ Divides Telluride Audiences

Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” has curiously registered as one of the most divisive films in Telluride this year. Curious because Payne is a recent favored son. He first attended the fest six years ago with “The Descendants” and has come back frequently, going so far as to serve on the Telluride board.

It’s not that favored sons (or daughters) are guaranteed a warm reception every time they return, and Payne himself noted at the film’s North American premiere Friday afternoon that he doesn’t take selection on the program here as a given. Nevertheless, asking around town as various festival goers catch up with his latest, it’s clear it’s not a slam dunk this awards season.

Some love it, finding it to be a complex juggling act as Payne deals in urgent social concepts with his and co-writer Jim Taylor’s trademark biting wit. Others have felt disengaged with the material, calling it a messy attempt to reconcile these various ideas in a tonally misshapen stew. Furthermore, actress Hong Chau’s performance — which ranges from wildly comedic to intimately emotional — entered problematic territory for many as some have noted that its broad strokes veer into the realm of stereotype. (Prepare for a wave of think pieces on that.)

All in all it’s a very unexpected reaction, particularly on the heels of a Venice opening night bow last week that landed strong critical notices. The position it leaves Paramount in is needing to marshal those yay-sayers and capitalizing on any sort of passion vote that could help the movie register as a serious best picture contender. (On the nominations ballot, films are ranked 1-5, so Paramount will be hoping for as many 1s and 2s as possible). What’s helpful for the studio and its consultants is that “Downsizing” is exposed now, early, giving it time to recover and find the right avenue through the season. It’s scheduled for release on Dec. 22.

And Payne has been here before. “Nebraska” was met with a muted reaction when it screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival in 2013. It just didn’t play well to the European audience, and it was mainly only there to drum up international exposure anyway. When the film came back around in Telluride later that year, it caught its stride and never looked back.

So “Downsizing” could still get there. There’s just a steeper hill to climb than one might have expected out of Venice. But the reaction does cast a different light on Paramount’s stable; “Downsizing” isn’t the studio’s only player this season. One wonders how Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” will land, particularly with a more internationalized Academy. That film is set for a Venice bow as well, and it feels like the kind of movie hugely dependent on that passion vote element. George Clooney’s “Suburbicon,” however, looks to be a non-starter on the circuit, though it has never been pitched as anything more than a commercial play.

It’s clear that Payne’s film is the studio’s major hopeful, but it has also been overshadowed in Telluride. Movies like “Darkest Hour” and fellow Venice premiere “The Shape of Water” have taken audiences by storm and look to be clear cut contenders. Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” is also winning hearts, while Scott Cooper’s “Hostiles” has played profoundly for those who saw it Saturday night and Sunday morning, promising a feeding frenzy on the acquisitions side.

The road is long and windy and no fate is sealed in September. So look for Paramount to regroup while avoiding the Toronto and New York film festivals and come back swinging with a campaign geared toward the social import of a movie that ultimately has something to say about the impact humans are making on the world. Speaking of which, Al Gore is in their quiver, too, remember, here at the fest with a special presentation of “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power.” Hmm. Payne and a former Vice President could make for fascinating Oscar season bedfellows indeed.

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