Alexander Payne is a member of a very small club (size puns, anyone?). He's on the short list (for example) of American directors who've never made a bad film. He's even made a great one, 2004's Sideways, and two that approached greatness, The Descendants (2011) and Nebraska (2013).
Downsizing almost falls into the latter category. It has brushes with greatness early on, when it focuses on its premise. Over the course of 135 minutes, however, Payne and cowriter Jim Taylor widen their thematic net with diminishing returns.
It's a daring departure from the filmmaker's trademark approach. "I think there may be a problem," the Oscar winner once remarked, "with a world in which making small [his words], human and humorous films is 'an achievement.' It should be the norm." Well, it's not the norm for Payne anymore.
This is a sprawling, effects-driven science-fiction epic touching on everything from consumerism to climate change, from the economy to the end of the world. Like many futuristic fables, it begins at an international scientific conference. A Norwegian researcher (Rolf Lassgård) announces a big discovery: His team has perfected a process for shrinking people.
He means to save the overpopulated planet. Colonies of human beings five inches tall use less of the Earth's resources. Here's where the biting social satire comes in: The free market soon takes the technology in a different direction.
For a fee, regular folk are offered the opportunity to live in new miniature communities like royalty. Payne stages an inspired infomercial in which Neil Patrick Harris touts the pluses of going minus: Ostentatious mansions are suddenly affordable (they're essentially working dollhouses), luxuries are available at astonishingly (ahem) reduced prices, and your savings are worth 100 times what they were. Sign on the line and go from middle-class to millionaire.
That sounds pretty sweet to Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig). He works for Omaha Steaks. She's bored and wants a bigger home. Money's tight, though, so the couple decides to get small.
A minor quibble: The filmmaker wisely employs a matter-of-fact tone in unfolding his fantasy. The world is the same one we live in. It's simply 15 years in the future, and science has yielded this breakthrough the way it once laid Viagra on humankind. So you'd figure somebody at some point would reference Steve Martin's famous "Let's Get Small" routine. Nope.
The process of mass shrinkage is a hoot and a half to behold. Payne has imagined it down to the tiniest detail — for example, the special spatulas used to slide the newly minute off the assembly line and onto a waiting bed.
Things don't go quite as expected. To avoid spoilers, let's skip ahead to the point where Paul befriends a pair of mysterious Serbian playboys (Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier, both at their oddball, hysterical best) and a Vietnamese illegal immigrant (Hong Chau). From there, the story embarks on a series of topical twists and turns with various degrees of success.
With his final act, Payne does a complete 180 from the immensely entertaining first. The Norwegian's attempt to save the planet, we're informed, is "too little, too late." Get it? How does one conclude a comedy — even a thoughtful, periodically dark one — on an up note when the human race has just become homeless? I can't say the filmmaker finds the perfect solution. But he gets it remarkably close to right, and that's no small feat.