There’s a moment late in Alexander Payne’s science-fiction comedy “Downsizing” that balances a gentle burst of heartwarming sentimentality with a precisely timed comic jab. You’ll know it when you see and hear it — the sweet-and-sour combo is something of a Payne specialty — and you may wonder, as many already have, exactly what kind of filmmaker he is.
Is he a soulful humanist or a smirking cheap-shot artist? Does he empathize with his sad-sack characters or make light of their circumstances? His fans and critics alike may find that the difference doesn’t really matter. Whether he’s scouring the frosty emotional landscape of his home state in “Nebraska” (2013), or embarking on a warmer road trip of the heart in “Sideways” (2004), Payne makes it hard to pinpoint where condescension ends and empathy begins.
In one sense, “Downsizing” literalizes one of the most frequent knocks against him: What easier way to look down on your characters than to shrink them to just a few inches tall? That’s the absurdist premise of this initially inspired, increasingly rudderless and altogether fascinating muddle of a movie, which offers both a recognizable extension of Payne’s sensibility and a bracingly bizarre departure from it. The story begins as a clever speculative fiction, veers into an odd-couple romance and then somersaults into a glum treatise on climate change, overpopulation and other signs of our planet’s irreversible decline.
If that strikes you as an intriguing notion for a movie — call it “Honey, I’ll Shrink the Kids the Day After Tomorrow” — you’ll get no argument from me. And for a solid hour, the story’s whimsical conceit, somehow both rigorous and nonsensical, makes for a genuinely disarming, even discomfiting vision. Would you downsize yourself, given the chance? The question, if not answered, is at least counterbalanced by the ingenuity with which Payne and his regular co-writer, Jim Taylor, have thought through even the (ahem) littlest particulars.
Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), an Omaha-based occupational therapist, is a nice, average guy with a nice, average wife (Kristen Wiig) and the usual anxieties about moving forward in a downbeat economy. But when they learn that an old high school friend (Jason Sudeikis) has undergone a life-altering new procedure devised by eco-conscious Norwegian scientists, the Safraneks themselves begin to entertain the prospect of “downsizing”: shrinking their bodies and exponentially multiplying their assets in one fell swoop.
Soon they’re checking out Leisureland, a Lilliputian sprawl of pint-sized mansions, shopping malls and chain restaurants that could be their future home. (Stefania Cella’s surreal production design is a micro-suburban marvel.) There’s a depressing timeshare-presentation vibe to the whole enterprise, complete with showroom demos in which a tiny Neil Patrick Harris and Laura Dern hilariously model the benefits of diminutive living: Turns out $83 buys you an awful lot of diamonds when you’re five inches tall.
Saying goodbye to their family and friends, Paul and Audrey head to a medical facility to undergo the downsizing procedure, where the first of several big surprises awaits. By the time we catch up with Paul a year later, working a sales job and living in a not-so-high-rise bachelor pad, something more than buyer’s remorse has set in: a palpable sense of “is this all there is?” regret.
From that point onward, “Downsizing” remains firmly in the land of the small, and apart from the occasional size-based sight gag, there’s little here to remind you of the difference. That’s very much to the movie’s point, which is that even under drastically altered circumstances, failure, loneliness and disappointment will always find a way. If that’s true for a comfortably middle-class type like Paul, imagine the plight of those dwelling in a tiny slum just outside Leisureland, a grim reminder of the social, racial and economic disparities that loom even in this miniature McParadise.
The smaller Paul gets, the more his vision expands, which makes for a surprisingly apt match of actor and character arc. (Damon, recently taken to task for his remarks about sexual harassment in Hollywood, makes an all-too-plausible clueless Everyman.) At first Paul is steered toward druggy decadence and free-market cynicism by a merry duo of European entrepreneurs (Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, amusing but expendable), for whom the end of the world is one more reason to party.
But Paul is shown a better, nobler path by his surprising encounter with Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a dissident Vietnamese refugee who was forcibly downsized by her country’s government. She now hobbles around on a prosthetic foot, cleaning upscale Leisureland homes and helping her impoverished neighbors — a model of industrious altruism and can-do spirit.
Payne has often been likened to the great Preston Sturges, and a generous reading of this movie’s unwieldy structure might position it in the spirit of Sturges’ classic 1941 comedy “Sullivan’s Travels,” with its nutty hairpin turns, earnest doofus hero and sincere if sanctimonious moralizing about What Humanity Really Needs. If Damon is the movie’s Joel McCrea, I suppose that makes Chau its Veronica Lake, if you can imagine Veronica Lake as a peg-legged Asian woman who spouts broken, heavily accented English as she goes about improving the lives of everyone around her. “Why not?” the movie seems to ask, and Chau’s nervy performance provides an unfortunate answer.
What’s heartening about Ngoc Lan is that she has clearly been developed as a substantial supporting role, and Chau is a strong enough actress to achieve isolated moments of real emotion. What’s dispiriting is that the character’s function never transcends the limits of Paul’s self-improvement narrative: She’s a model-minority saint, an inevitable romantic interest, a fount of down-to-earth wisdom, a simple-minded Christian and a source of nagging comic relief, all wrapped up in one adorably grating package.
So what kind of filmmaker is Alexander Payne? On the evidence of this movie, the kind who shows a perplexing but admirable willingness to refuse the safety net. “Downsizing” would almost certainly have been a more manageable, less cringe-worthy picture without Ngoc Lan, but there’s no denying it would also have been a less interesting one. She may be a tone-deaf miscalculation, but she is also an emblem of her maker’s ambition.
And that ambition ultimately works to the benefit and the detriment of this daring transitional work — a bold but wobbly leap from a world Payne knows well into uncolonized terrain. It’s hard not to appreciate the visual and thematic scope of “Downsizing’s” reach. But it’s harder not to see the chasm between its strange, misshapen story and the grand, towering vision to which it aspires.
Rating: R, for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Playing: In general release