Review: In ‘Downsizing,’ Matt Damon Sweats the Small Stuff

One of my favorite movies of 2017, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” posited near-total human extinction as a more-or-less happy ending. A radically dystopian future seems like the best we deserve these days, and it was impressive to see a summer blockbuster offer such harsh medicine.

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One of my favorite movies of 2017, “War for the Planet of the Apes,” posited near-total human extinction as a more-or-less happy ending. A radically dystopian future seems like the best we deserve these days, and it was impressive to see a summer blockbuster offer such harsh medicine.

Alexander Payne’s new movie, “Downsizing,” doesn’t go nearly as far. Surveying a landscape of impending ecological catastrophe, it proposes a future that is only mildly dystopian and prescribes laughter rather than apocalyptic despair as, if not exactly a remedy, then at least an acceptable palliative. We don’t need to disappear altogether, but it might be better all around if we weren’t so darn big.

Payne’s title refers not to corporate cost-saving strategies but to a technological procedure invented by scientists in Norway and adapted for universal, commercial use. People are efficiently and almost painlessly shrunk to around four or five inches. This is sold as an environmental panacea: Our tiny selves will take less of a toll on the earth’s resources and produce less waste. The burden we impose on our hot, crowded planet is expected to decrease proportionally.

But Payne is a canny student of modern American culture and in particular of the ways his fellow citizens conflate selfishness and virtue. The real attraction in becoming small isn’t that you consume less; it’s that you can have a whole lot more. That’s what Paul and Audrey Safranek, an Omaha couple played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, discover. Compared with their regular-size lives of compromised dreams and diminished expectations, downsizing promises luxury and abundance. Once they liquidate their modest assets, they can move into a mansion in a planned community called Leisureland and pursue a guilt-free vision of material happiness. The hard sell is provided, at a surreal seminar, by Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern. What could go wrong?

Payne, who wrote “Downsizing” with his frequent collaborator Jim Taylor, zooms in on the fine print in the contract — in other words, on the ways our ingrained fallibility upends our utopian projects. Paul, having undergone the irreversible (and hilariously detailed) reduction, finds himself unexpectedly alone in Leisureland. The world of “the small” — who are somehow both an oppressed minority and a privileged elite — is afflicted by the usual problems. Selfishness and deceit haven’t disappeared, and bigger injustices still exist. Paul sees a news report about a political dissident involuntarily made tiny by an oppressive government and later discovers festering inequality around Leisureland itself. Some of the familiar contradictions of 21st-century capitalism are magnified as Paul, a Gulliver gone native in Lilliput, eventually discovers.

Damon’s regular-guy affability carries the movie through its expository phase, which is a lot of fun. Payne has an admirably concrete logistical sense and an eye for amusing incongruities. The transition from big to small is full of clever touches, like the spatulas that lift the newly shrunken out of their suddenly oversize beds, as if they were freshly baked one-bite cookies.

Paul, big and small, is just interesting enough to be good company. He is friendly, but with that hint of heartland hostility that is layered into every Alexander Payne hero’s temperament like a smear of hot mustard in a bologna-and-cheese sandwich. Paul’s passivity gives the movie a leisurely rhythm unusual in both science fiction and satire, the two genres that “Downsizing” nods toward without fully embracing.

Instead, the movie resembles an episode of “The Twilight Zone” directed by Preston Sturges. An outlandish, pointedly allegorical conceit is inhabited not by symbolic figures but by terrestrial oddballs. You don’t see this at first, because Payne is so charmed by the conceit itself. Like a video gamer uninterested in winning and in no hurry to advance to higher levels, he knocks around the corners and side streets of his invented reality, treating it the way he treated Hawaii in “The Descendants,” wine country in “Sideways” and his beloved Nebraska in most of his other movies — as a picturesque, lived-in backdrop for the spectacle of human ridiculousness.

About an hour in, “Downsizing” amps up that ridiculousness in risky and wonderful fashion. Just when we (along with Paul) assume we’ve figured out the rules and boundaries of this place, Christoph Waltz shows up as Paul’s upstairs neighbor, an international man of mystery named Dusan. Shortly thereafter, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who becomes the agent of his ethical and romantic reawakening. For a delirious while, fueled by Waltz and Chau’s zigzagging comic energies, we are transported to a land beyond genre, a zone of pure comic sublimity.

And then, with a bit of a thud, this kinetic and good-natured movie discovers its limitations and shrinks before our eyes. Payne and Taylor, roaming freely in their conjoined imaginations, wander off into the bushes and then stumble into the middle of the road. Paul’s journey loses direction and momentum, and sour, nagging questions begin to intrude. Haven’t we seen this story before, in which a white man’s anomie is cured by the love of an exotic woman? Did we come all this way to rediscover the ouroboros of guilty liberal self-consciousness?

Well, yes, as it turns out. But then again the whole point of the movie is the scaling down of expectations to arrive at something like an accurate sense of scale, and disappointment may be a perverse sign of success. “Downsizing” is an ambitious movie about the value of modesty, and its faults are proportionate to its insights. I sort of wish it felt like a bigger deal, but maybe that’s my problem.

‘Downsizing’ is rated R. Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes.

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