The best thing about director Alexander Payne’s science-fiction, social satire “Downsizing” (*** OUT OF ****) is Matt Damon. Damon makes such a friendly, sympathetic, but average protagonist that you’re willing to identify with his plight and amused at the bizarre twists and turns his life takes in this unique comedy about human miniaturization. This isn’t the first time that Payne and scenarist Jim Taylor have collaborated on a film. Earlier, they co-wrote four of Payne’s films, beginning with the controversial abortion satire “Citizen Ruth” (1996), Reese Witherspoon’s high school comedy “Election” (1999), the Jack Nicholson character study “About Schmidt” (2002), and the Paul Giamatti & Thomas Haden Church wine-drinking hysterics in “Sideways” (2o04). Payne and Taylor tread a thin line between comedy and tragedy so neither approach overshadows the other. For example, they presented both sides of the abortion argument in “Citizen Ruth” and still wallowed in comedy galore with a hopelessly irresponsible heroine who sought to exploit both sides with little success. Basically, their satiric approach softens the sting in their often politically-astute, anti-capitalist rants. “Downsizing” adheres to this formula. However, Payne and Taylor have done something far more ambitious and speculative than ever before that may prompt you not only to think, but also laugh when you least expect either in this 135-minute, R-rated epic. Ostensibly, the first hour of “Downsizing” delivers knee-slapping hilarity that never degenerates into a stupid lowest common-denominator comedy of errors. Payne and Taylor engross us with the eccentric procedures that our protagonist must face to be shrunk, so he can realize his new dream, brought on by the anxiety that our consumer-based society has induced. At this midpoint, “Downsizing” shifts gears from our hero’s plight to the plight of an unfortunate heroine, whose own struggles enable our hero to put his own woes into greater perspective. Essentially, “Downsizing” qualifies as an art film that doesn’t pander. You know when you’re watching an art film because you cannot as easily anticipate where the filmmakers are going. “Downsizing” complicates matters, and these complications makes its unusual shenanigans about shrinking people to the size of toy soldiers seems even more striking.
“Downsizing” opens with Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jorgen AsbJornsen (Rolf Lassgård of “House of Fools”), discovering he can shrink people with a laboratory procedure that has few side effects. Ultimately, Dr. AsbJornsen has a greater agenda than just making people smaller. His quest is the save the planet by reducing the toll that humans exact on our ecological resources as well as the pollution that mankind has made. Earlier Payne movies dealt strictly with characters, while “Downsizing” deals not only with characters, but also the greater scheme of things, primarily the environment. AsbJornsen believes an apocalypse is inevitable, and this dread fueled his research. Ten years later, after he astonishes his fellow scientists with his revelations, the rest of the world climbs onto the bandwagon. Now, people are embracing downsizing. However, they aren’t doing so for the sake of the world, but for the sake of their wallets. They’re discovering that they can enhance their wealth by decreasing their physical size. Communities spring up to accommodate these finger-sized humans. Now, lower income families can afford many of the advantages previously reserved only for the affluent.
At a high school reunion, an Omaha, Nebraska, couple Paul (Matt Damon of “The Bourne Identity”) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig of “Bridesmaids”) meet classmate Dave Johnson (Jason Sudeikis of “Horrible Bosses 2”), and he convinces them that small is smart. Paul and Audrey learn they can turn their $156-thousand savings into $12 million and live like royalty. They head off to Leisureland to have themselves minimized and embark on a new adventure. Unfortunately, Audrey gets cold feet about the procedure. Each downsizing candidate must have their bodies scraped clean of hair and undergo a dental procedure. Once they have completed the shrinkage, they can grow their hair back, and dentists can restore their teeth. Audrey backs out after they have shaved her head and one eyebrow. Imagine Paul’s hysteria when he awakens on the other side to the news that she has abandoned him. Inevitably, a divorce ensues, and Paul winds up in a luxurious apartment complex rather than the sprawling mansion.
An occupational therapist before he downsized, Paul toils as a telemarketer to supplement his divorce settlement. Things take an odd turn when he contends with an obnoxious neighbor, Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz of “Django Unchained”), who loves to party. Although he lives in Leisureland, Dusan has normal sized friends on the outside, and he runs a bootleg business in anything he can resell to his own mini-mob. Initially, the two aren’t amiable. Paul abhors Dusan’s rowdy parties. Eventually, after Dusan and he become friends, Paul meets a Vietnamese protester, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau of “Inherent Vice”), who was imprisoned and then reduced for her anarchic activities. She escaped Vietnam in a television box. Now, she runs a cleaning business in Leisureland. She has organized the less fortunate, third-world residents, and she accepts food and medical contributions from the elite to help the downtrodden. Paul tries to fix her prosthetic foot, but breaks it. As a result, he winds up serving in one of her cleaning crews. Incredibly, this Vietnamese anarchist with her charitable attitude wins Paul’s heart, and he finds new meaning in life after his series of setbacks.
Payne and Taylor prefer smirks to belly laughs. They maintain subtlety throughout it. For example, after the inductees have been reduced, attendants scoop them up off their gurneys with spatulas as if they were baked goods. When Dr. AsbJornsen presents his initial findings, he speaks into a lavalier microphone clipped onto a miniature podium. One of Dusan’s friends, Konrad (Ud0 Kier) jokes that FedEx can deliver his yacht faster to the coast than he can get there. The ironic thing about Paul’s troubles is that they get bigger as he gets smaller. “Downsizing” is a small movie bursting with big ideas.