‘Downsizing’ Is a Quirky Sci-Fi With a Timely Message

Leave it to Alexander Payne to make this kind of quirky, yet human science fiction fantasy. “Downsizing boasts a cheerfully silly premise, but don’t let the advertising fool you, the movie isn’t some kind of whacky popcorn entertainment like “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” Instead Payne has delivered yet another offbeat analysis of the American middle class psyche, this time filtered through a fun, futuristic premise. There are a lot of good laughs, both big and small, but the heart of the movie is its near satirizing of life in this unaffordable economy, the class divisions we seldom discuss, and the end times obsessions now fueling pop culture. It isn’t a perfect movie, Payne slips into some corny potholes near the end, but it’s so engaging for at least its initial two acts that we can forgive its dependency on formula.

Matt Damon is Paul Safranek, a regular working class guy who was once on track to be a surgeon. But his mother’s illness forced him to quit school and now he and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) struggle with everyone’s collection of woes: Bills, debts and more debts. It is the near future and overpopulation and environmental catastrophe are more pressing issues than ever before. A Norwegian scientist named Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) has invented a solution: Individuals can choose to be shrunk to a size of five inches and sent to live in beautiful, well-tended communities where life is good and cheap, little waste is produced and overpopulation eradicated. The Safraneks see the appeal ($125,000 in savings balloons to over a million in the shrunken world) and decide to shrink and move to Leisure Land, one of the key resorts for the “downsized.” But just as the procedure gets under way, Audrey backs out, leaving Paul alone down in Leisure Land to adjust to his new life, and discover that even at five inches, some realities about society never change.

Alexander Payne is one of those directors like Wes Anderson who makes films easily identifiable by theme and style. Both essentially create their own worlds with distinct, offbeat attitudes. “Downsizing” works precisely because Payne imagines its world with total detail. Paul and Audrey are hounded at a bar by a patron wondering why shrunken people should pay less taxes than regular-sized humans. In that same scene someone on the bar TV worries, “you’re going to have Israelis shrinking Palestinians.” It’s one of those movies like “The Truman Show” where the premise is whacky, but executed in a way that’s just believable enough. Payne stages some moments of fun, interesting science fiction. The entire shrinking process is filmed like a tongue and cheek homage to Stanley Kubrick, as soon to be downsized patients are wheeled, shaved and examined in bright, white rooms as the score by Rolfe Kent becomes a waltz. Other scenes revel in the idea of seeing everything from below, including sunsets and (now) oversized crackers. But then Payne takes the story into the kind of social commentary George Clooney’s recent, ill-received “Suburbicon” (also starring Damon) tried to pull off.

Payne’s screenplay uses the whole shrinking premise to explore the idea of an economy so expensive and competitive, that many of us would probably prefer to be shrunk. Paul and Audrey represent the shrinking (pun intended) middle class swallowed up by debt and payments. There’s a particularly biting college reunion scene where Paul explains to his successful classmates why he sidetracked from his goal of becoming a surgeon to take care of his ailing mom. Once Paul is left alone on Leisure Land, he discovers that even miniaturized, people don’t shake their habits. His neighbor, a vivacious Albanian named Dusan (Christoph Waltz), smuggles goods into Leisure Land to make a killing, including miniaturized Cuban cigars (or at least fakes rolled by Chinese kids). Dusan introduces Paul into the local party circuit, where the ultra-wealthy and the newly rich get high, dance and lazy the days away. But then Paul discovers that even here there is a side struck by poverty, because as a wealthy patron explains, even in Leisure Land, if you’re poor you’re just as screwed in shrunken form. Waltz is a great presence in this movie, basking in the loose, lively role.

The film’s best performance belongs to Hong Chau, who plays Ngoc, a Vietnamese dissident forcibly downsized by her government. Now she cleans houses for the wealthy in Leisure Land and lives in a the poor side of town with Latin American immigrants. She introduces Paul to this side of town when she asks for his help to aid a sick friend. There is great offbeat humor in their moments together, and a quirky sense of attraction typical to Payne’s films like “Sideways.” Payne specializes in making the flawed everyday person become heroic, mostly against their own will. Chau is a revelation in this film, turning moments that might read absurdly on paper into surprisingly moving drama (one scene where she bursts into tears while recalling a letter she sent out during her days as a prisoner will surprise you in how she carries it). Damon himself again delivers as a working class character reluctantly pushed into uncomfortable, but enlightening experiences.

Payne nearly makes it work all the way through, but the final act feels sluggish and forced. It loses its sense of satire and becomes a combination of corny romance and unconvincing message movie. It’s as if Payne really felt the material in the first sections, then lost steam near the end. Still, this is a vastly entertaining movie where the hero is an average joe living in interesting times, as we all are these days. “Downsizing” transcends its own gimmick, even if we chuckle we realize that the way things are going, it’s not that bad of an idea.

Downsizing” opens Dec. 22 in theaters nationwide.