“DOWNSIZING” — 2½ stars — Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis; R (language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use); in general release
Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” is a quirky love story that gets lost in a wandering sea of social commentary.
The concept is very clever. Thanks to a genetic breakthrough by a Norwegian scientist named Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), human miniaturization presents the hopeful solution to all of the world’s problems. The new process —dubbed Downsizing — promotes planetary conservation and economic relief, as modest middle class citizens with limited full-size resources can find their assets magnified exponentially by reducing their consumption.
It’s a great deal for struggling Omaha, Nebraska, occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who, on the advice of one of Paul’s old prep school friends (Jason Sudeikis), decide to get small. An evaluation estimates their $152K in assets will roughly translate to $12.5 million once they move into Leisureland, one of the most prominent and luxurious communities for the miniaturized.
“Downsizing’s” most memorable sequence follows Paul through the miniaturization process, where after extensive shaving and prep work, patients are wheeled into a large white room on gurneys, then scooped off their beds with stainless steel spatulas after a microwave ding announces the end of their transition.
Unfortunately, while in recovery, the now five-inch tall Paul learns that Audrey bailed out before they could finish shaving her eyebrows. One divorce later, Paul’s supposed lavish lifestyle becomes a call center job and a low-rent apartment beneath a Serbian party man named Dusan (Christoph Waltz).
It’s through Dusan that Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged Vietnamese refugee who used Downsizing to immigrate illegally before winding up on a housecleaning crew. Through Ngoc, Paul learns that Leisureland has all of the same inequality problems that the regular-sized world does.
Class inequality is just one issue in a grab bag of socially conscious topics director Alexander Payne references over “Downsizing’s” lengthy 135-minute run time. At any given time, the film could be commenting on immigration, overpopulation, consumerism and later on, even climate change. The film is built on a very clever idea, but after a certain point, the film’s focus and lack of visual cues makes it easy to forget that you’re watching tiny people, and “Downsizing’s” attempt to address so many issues only assures that it doesn’t say much of anything about any of them.
Which brings us back to the love story. Most audiences will admit that the Point B “Downsizing” arrives at by the closing credits wasn’t exactly what they expected back at Point A. But if Payne’s film has a narrative home base, it is between Paul and Ngoc, as Chau’s unique performance as a tiny, headstrong woman ordering Damon about in broken English is probably the standout element of the whole film.
She’s a perfect fit for “Downsizing’s” whimsical style, which pairs Payne’s quirky view of middle class America with composer Rolfe Kent’s bright score. The blend of style and story feels a bit like a cross between “The Truman Show” and 1987’s “Innerspace,” without the great Sam Cooke tunes.
In spite of its quirkiness, though, “Downsizing” earns its R-rating, with generous profanity and shots of male genitalia during some early scenes that set up and portray the Downsizing process.
With a little more focus, “Downsizing” might feel like a more satisfying film. As is, it’s a clever idea that feels like it just hasn’t quite figured out what it really wants to say. Payne’s film will definitely make you think, and for some audiences, maybe that’s enough.
“Downsizing” is rated R for language, including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use; running time: 135 minutes.