Downsizing **

Shrinking yourself to lead a better life is a novel idea, but Alexander Payne takes the story in ill-advised directions. 

Is it worth $10? No 

It’s a brilliant idea for a movie: Science evolves to the point that it can shrink people to five inches tall with little risk of side effects. Humans who choose to be “downsized” leave their lives, friends and loved ones behind to live in micro communities. Everything is cheaper because they consume and require less, which is good for the environment but bad for the economy.

A conceit such as this is ripe for social satire, and knowing the storytelling is in the hands of writer/director Alexander Payne (“Sideways”) is ample cause for excitement. In his films Payne has a way of exposing ugly truths about humanity by finding, with the help of A-list casts, emotional clarity in his characters (“About Schmidt,” “The Descendants,” “Nebraska”).

You can’t help but wonder, then, how Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor allowed “Downsizing” to go so horribly off track. The movie is largely void of humor, meaning or commentary. It’s incredibly frustrating, and sad, when filmmakers who you know are immensely talented render a product that’s not up to their standards.

Matt Damon stars as Paul, an occupational therapist at Omaha Steaks in Nebraska. He’s married to Audrey (Kristen Wiig), but their lives are listless. They can’t afford the new house she desperately wants, and they find themselves flustered by the endless cycle of paycheck-to-paycheck middle class modernity.  Life is hard, and it isn’t getting any easier.

But, an opportunity: Downsizing to .0634 percent of their current mass and volume will allow their $152,000 in net wealth to be worth $12.5 million as small people, so it becomes a no-brainer for a better life. The before, during and after scenes depicting the shrinking process are fascinating, as they showcase Payne’s bold imagination letting loose in a way that’s both practical and creative. 

After Paul downsizes, however, the film falters. Once shrunken, Paul becomes a lost soul when things don’t go as expected. The shrinking is irreversible, and he struggles to let loose and enjoy life. His bohemian upstairs neighbor (Christoph Waltz) is able to help a little, but really only Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) gets through to him. Where the story goes, and how it gets there, can best be described as a lame disappointment that is completely void of the ingenuity demonstrated in the first third of the film.

What’s more, there’s no point. Many things happen to Paul, but Payne’s message, whatever it may be, is lost in all the meandering. Are we to make the most of the life we have because we don’t know when it’ll be over? Is the grass not always greener on the other side? Is the only purpose in life to help others? Many ideas are introduced, and none are followed through with in a compelling way. It’s as if Payne is taking from Darren Aronofsky’s (“mother!”) bad habit approach to audiences of “make of this what you will,” and he should’ve known better.  

If you can bring yourself to do it – and you won’t, but “if” – leave the theater after Paul’s shrinking process is complete. By that time you will have seen all the good the movie has to offer.

Did you know?
Payne won adapted screenplay Oscars for “Sideways” (2004) and “The Descendants” (2011).