It’s hard to say what’s better about the first half of Alexander Payne’s wonderfully weird — or is it weirdly wonderful? — “Downsizing”: the audacity of its premise, or the delicious skill with which Payne executes that premise, detail by comically ingenious detail.
The fact that the film shifts discernibly in the second half, going places and tackling ideas one wouldn’t necessarily expect, will surely disappoint some and please others. But there’s no doubt about one thing: the director’s considerable talent is on full display here. Let him keep shifting; we’ll keep watching.
As we’ve seen in films like “Nebraska,” ”About Schmidt” and others, Payne likes to make movies about what some might call small people: ordinary folks in unremarkable places, struggling to make things work. In “Downsizing,” he’s made a movie about really small people. As in, five inches tall.
We begin with a groundbreaking discovery. A renowned Norwegian scientist has figured out how humans can reduce their footprint and save Earth from overpopulation. It’s called downsizing, and it’s irreversible — but if enough people do it, it could save humanity. Paul Safranek (an excellent Matt Damon in the ultimate Everyman role), an occupational therapist at an Omaha meat company, watches on television with astonishment.
Shift to 10 years later. Downsizing is catching on. Entire communities have sprouted up around the world. Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), childless and still living in the house where Paul grew up, attend a school reunion. Suddenly, Paul’s now-five inch friend, Dave (Jason Sudeikis), and his wife are wheeled in. “Dave? He never struck me as the kind of guy who’d go get small!,” Paul marvels. Later, Dave, perched on a cracker box on the kitchen counter, explains the best thing about going small: the economic benefits. At that size, you can live in total luxury for a fraction of the price. Forget the planet, Dave says — “downsizing is about saving yourself.”
Paul and Audrey go visit Leisureland, a top-notch downsized community, and a saleswoman explains how they’d suddenly be multi-millionaires, able to afford a mansion with a pool and tennis court. (In a hilarious cameo, small people Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern demonstrate the good life — and the cheap price of tiny diamond jewelry.) Soon, Paul and Audrey decide to take the plunge. They put their wedding rings in a keepsake box, and head off.
At the facility, the couple is separated into gender-specific downsizing areas, where they’ll be shrunk to .0364 percent of their original body volume. First, body hair must be shaven off, for obvious reasons. Dental technicians remove gold tooth fillings, or else heads will explode. Workers go down the assembly line after mass reduction is completed, scooping up miniature people with spatulas like fresh-baked cookies.
When Paul awakes, he’ll be greeted by a surprise we won’t reveal. Suffice it to say that a year later, things aren’t going well. Then he meets his neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a Serbian playboy who has a shady trade business and throws noisy parties with his wealthy friend, Konrad, who notes that being small is great because you’re instantly rich — unless you’re poor, “and then you’re just small.”
It is through Dusan that Paul meets someone who will change his life — not to mention change the tone and direction of the rest of the film. Her name is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, in a terrific breakout performance), a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will and arrived in America in a TV box. She survives by cleaning houses, and lives in a slum — yes, there are slums in downsized communities, too — behind a big wall.
The last part of the film takes the group to the idyllic fjords of Norway, where the original downsized community still exists. It is here where the issue of climate change and the earth’s sustainability take center stage. Revealing any more would spoil the surprise.
Except to say that Paul, through his new friends, learns more than he expected about making a difference in the world — and what it means to be big or small.
Spoiler alert: It might not be about size.
“Downsizing,” a Paramount Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.” Running time: 135 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.