Downsizing Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau. Directed by Alexander Payne. Rated R. Opens Friday citywide.
Director Alexander Payne has been a keen and sometimes caustic observer of human behavior in his previous movies, small-scale dramas often about dysfunctional family relationships. But with Downsizing, Payne and his regular co-writer Jim Taylor take on their most ambitious topic yet, a sprawling sci-fi story that’s part satire, part domestic drama, part political commentary, and almost all a disjointed mess. At 135 minutes, Downsizing is like several misguided movies strung together, with a basic setup that lasts 40 minutes and a central character relationship that doesn’t start until 40 minutes after that.
Even the high concept—that large numbers of people voluntarily shrink themselves to a few inches in height in order to help both the environment and their own financial security—is rendered more or less irrelevant for large stretches of the movie. After multiple prologues establishing in unnecessary detail the concept of “downsizing,” the movie finally gets to Midwestern occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) taking the plunge to “get small” and live in a luxurious housing development for the tiny in New Mexico. There’s some belabored comedy about the contrast between normal-sized people and the growing community of the downsized, but once Paul is settled into his new home where everyone is the same size as him, that largely fades away, and the movie is not nearly as comedic as its early scenes would indicate.
Later on, Paul’s story intersects with a Serbian black-market dealer (Christoph Waltz) and a Vietnamese political dissident (Hong Chau) who become far more important to the movie than Audrey or other characters who end up falling by the wayside. It’s a bumpy ride getting to the eventual climax, which involves an entirely different (and poorly elucidated) sci-fi premise than the initial shrinking setup. Payne is usually great at creating distinctive characters, but everyman Paul remains mostly a bland cipher, and the supporting characters are more than a little cartoonish, from Wiig’s disapproving wife to Waltz’s slimy operator to Chau’s oblivious immigrant (with an exaggerated accent that frequently borders on offensive).
Payne and Taylor bring up serious issues about environmental danger, class inequality and political partisanship, but the disjointed story never sticks with one long enough to make a coherent point. Payne adds elaborate special effects and ornate sets to his storytelling, but he ends up with a narrative that is much less effective and insightful than his more grounded, simpler earlier work.