With a sneaky comic tone swerving between earnest compassion and snarky derision, a middle-aged protagonist chewed up by ennui, and a colorful array of character actors populating a kitsch-Americana setting, “Downsizing” has all the hallmarks of an Alexander Payne film. And yet, his latest work plays just as much like a blown-up, fun home image of Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” as it too uses the conventions of science fiction to mount a caustic social satire. And like Judge’s 2006 dystopian comedy (which feels less and far fetched each passing day, as the meme goes), “Downsizing” is rife with witty visual touches and inspired comic premises but never quite comes together as fully successful whole.
The premise itself is a gem. In some not-so-far-off future, forward-thinking Norwegians have discovered a way shrink objects down to 1/12th scale and have embarked on a global campaign to convince us that it’s time to “get small.” Undergo the irreversible process, they argue, and you too can prevent the imminent ecological and economic effects of overpopulation. Cut to ten years later, and the procedure has swept the world as the ultimate consumerist sacrifice: Get small, and, with that newfound purchase power, you can finally live large!
Enter Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), a listless couple with limited upward mobility and plenty of financial strain. He’s an in-house physical therapist at a meatpacking plant, but he coulda been a somebody; she’s plain bored. Though they can’t afford that stately McMansion in Omaha, NE, they could afford the same house in Barbie-scale, and things do look rosier in the downsized community of Leisureland, NM (“Where the grass IS greener!”). And so the married divvy up their belongings to make the fateful step. That is, until a left-field twist throws a wrench in their best-laid plans.
“Downsizing” sizzles with comedic invention throughout its first half. Payne makes skillful use of his visuals budget, offering a number of wry compositions that mix big and small in the same frame, trotting out a number of winning cameos, and relying on Stefania Cella’s expert production design to detail a world that feels both overly familiar and slightly off. The first act builds to a standout sequence, visually reminiscent of “THX 1138,” that follows Paul as he undergoes the shrinking procedure, and that culminates with a sublime punchline that completely upends the story.
The narrative loosens thereafter, falling into a less propulsive register that finds Paul adjusting to his new life as a small and befriending his new neighbors in Leisureland. Coasting on his aura of slightly goofy decency, Damon makes a sturdy and affable lead, but he’s not given an awful lot to do. Intentionally so, as Payne and screenwriting partner Jim Taylor write Paul as the ultimate passive actor, the ne plus ultra of go-along-to-get-along.
Doing so effectively cedes the film to the more colorful figures in Paul’s orbit, which is not an entirely bad idea once you’ve cast Christoph Waltz as Dusan, a cigar-chomping Albanian lothario. Professional wheeler-dealer Dusan lives upstairs with aging party-boy Joris (Udo Kier) and employs Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, the film’s stellar MVP), a famous Vietnamese dissident and amputee who was shrunk against her will, smuggled into the country, and now runs a cleaning service. If they sound like capital-B big characters, well, they very much are, and both in their own way change the story’s direction. Allowing Dusan and Ngoc Lan to take the reins, as it were, allows “Downsizing” to expand its social and narrative scope, but this yields somewhat mixed results.
As the film goes on, it moves from caustic consumerist satire to a more measured consideration of an underclass that would emerge in whatever new utopia with extra thoughts on the value of religion and bureaucracy, and then it zigzags again, as Paul, Ngoc Lan, Dusan and Joris head to Norway to meet original scientists behind shrinking procedure, who offer a dire prophecy about the fate of the world. Our perspective hitched to such a passive lead, many of these new developments and ideas come in the guise of long speeches, never the most electric narrative technique.
But the film’s main issues are less narrative than they are tonal. In its final act, “Downsizing” tries to be both ironic and fully earnest, weaving between heartfelt speeches, swelling strings, and acerbic takedowns, often in the same scene. It’s not so much that that film shifts from an acerbic to an emotional register, but that it aims to do both at once, and succeeds at neither. There are beats at the end that feel formally at war with themselves.
Still, a pokey last act does not counteract the myriad delights that preceded it, and if anything, “Downsizing” is a coolly confident takeoff only undermined by its shaky landing. With such a winning concept and all the elements in place to make it soar, the filmmakers would have done well to heed their very premise. Sometimes, less is more.
“Downsizing” opened the Venice Film Festival. It will hit theaters on December 22.