Alexander Payne is a wonderful filmmaker, responsible for some of the most memorable American movies of the past two decades, including “Sideways” and “Election.”
But the world really didn’t need to see his version of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” trilogy.
Yet that’s precisely what Payne and his longtime collaborator Jim Taylor have delivered in “Downsizing,” a movie about a world in which a percentage of the human population has voluntarily shrunk itself to 5 inches in a last-ditch effort to create a more sustainable planet.
Put simply, this is a strange and creepy idea for a movie to begin with, and it’s not helped by the uncomfortable spectacle of, say, watching a miniature Matt Damon interact with a bite-sized Christoph Waltz, playing his neighbor and expressing delight over the life-size flower in the former’s apartment.
The only successful way to go would’ve been to fully embrace the weirdness and take the story to the sort of surreal space occupied by David Lynch, but Payne’s strengths lie in real-world social satires and naturalistic dramas.
He’s a bit out of his depth in this fantasy land. The movie’s heart is in a socially-conscious place when the high concept demands something fundamentally different.
Damon plays a regular Omahan named Paul Safranek, who decides along with wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), to consent to the irreversible downsizing procedure, in which they will become small and occupy an antiseptic community of small people in New Mexico called Leisure Land.
One thing leads to another and without getting into too many specifics, Paul finds himself alone in his smaller state, growing close to Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), who was forcibly shrunk by her government and then came to America stowed away in a TV box.
Really, do yourself a favor and don’t ask.
Payne has evident fun relishing in the subdued special effects that create the movie’s warped size perspectives, capturing the ’80s sci-fi family adventure aesthetic with precision.
In the mix of computer work and practical efforts, they’re never so advanced, or so flashy that they seem as if they’d be out of place in that era.
The movie is aggressively geared toward that nostalgic sweet spot, occupying terrain that’s mildly playful and out-there but really most concerned with being grounded in a perceptible portrayal of 21st century suburban life.
The gentle, milquetoast sensibility, embodied by Damon’s extraordinarily dull character, becomes increasingly grating. Safranek is snapped out of the malaise engulfing him by the kind and charitable Ngoc, whose relentless energy and steadfast commitment to doing the right thing awaken the protagonist to the emptiness that drove him to seek an easy fix like downsizing in the first place.
Pregnant with metaphors, with the entire movie amounting to an expansive allegory of the wastefulness of American life, “Downsizing” is consumed by sentimentality. A much different movie with the same concept might have worked, but Payne and Taylor (who co-wrote the screenplay with him) are so opposed to anything outrageous or daring that the movie succumbs to inanity.