I tried to see “Downsizing” — a movie about solving overpopulation/mass human waste by the shrinking of people to 5 inches tall — and failed because of an overpopulated ticket line clogged with dating teens that stretched almost to the pretzel shop near the double-door entrance of McCain Mall and nearly parallel to the Sears store. By 7:20 p.m., I was still in line, alone, for a 7 p.m. showing, watching the teens snapchat. I gave up. I did not see it until 10:25 p.m. that night, with one other person in the theater.
I figured this would be a decent allegory for whatever was to come. A good example of how an overpopulated planet is tilting us toward doomsday (as in, we all die from the planet heating up), but also just banal and annoying (as in, it’s hard to get a parking spot).
Indeed, that was the promise of “Downsizing,” the latest Alexander Payne project. Its trailers have projected the movie as a combination of the humanistic director’s witty impulses with a perfect sci-fi hook. A Norwegian doctor invents miniaturization — an ecological magic bullet for our doomed world — and we follow Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a Midwestern white male occupational therapist dissatisfied with his life (classic Payne lead) with a constantly mispronounced last name (classic Payne humor), who reduces himself — not for the good of the world, but to get more equity on his and his wife’s meager middle-class savings (classic Payne twist).
Here’s the big conceit, it seems, that Payne’s always wanted. A giant metaphor to highlight the way that modern American living (or, if you’re into this way of thinking, “capitalism”) has made human connection difficult. And made all of us, literally, small.
But the conceit just ends up getting in Payne’s way.
Thirty minutes in, when it looks like Damon and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), will be spending the next two hours interacting with nouveau-riche suburbanites (like a polo-shirt-wearing Jason Sudeikis) in a small-person development called “Leisureland,” you hope for a plot twist. It happens, but it’s a good idea that should’ve been cut, the perfect line the writer must begrudgingly throw out.
The fun montage of Matt Damon being shrunk — which works both in the film and in the larger “that’d be nice in real life” feeling — is an outlier. Most times, adventuring around the small world with Safranek is a burden in learning all the semi-interesting ways the injustices of the big world are reflected in this small one. Payne’s past works — “Election,” “Nebraska” and “The Descendants” — delved deeper into a world we all knew. But Payne spends so much time introducing this new one, and setting up the big world vs. small world metaphor, that the comparison falls flat. It doesn’t help that Damon’s loser doesn’t have any gravity to him — he’s a Joe, but not quite Average Joe enough for us to care about.
At its best, when the characters are dealing with life’s mundanity and cruelty in a shrunken but unchanged world, the film is about wanting too much from life. At its worst, “Downsizing” is a case of a director who wants too much from his film.
The solution to Safranek’s problems, and the twist that breaks the film, is the second-half plotline revolving around a Vietnamese dissident Ngoc Lan Tran (played admirably, despite a role calling for a potentially offensive accent, by Hong Chau), who teaches Paul to care about other people.
If that solution feels rushed, well, it is. Our best art, and Payne’s best work, makes cliché messages take on resonance. Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” for example, connects with audiences not because the idea of racism causing fear is a new one, but that the audience feels that fear. Payne’s message in “Downsizing” is downright motionless.
The message is still important, though, if only because takes on two ideas directly: 1) that a human apocalypse matters and, 2) that finding meaning in life means looking inward. Payne, I think rightly, tells us that meaning comes from caring for other people. If all humanity went extinct, after all, it wouldn’t really be sad unless there was one lonely person left to miss us. That lesson is more crucial now than ever, but Payne’s work fails to punch your heart with it. Instead, you think: “Yep, that’s true” and also “I kind of hate Matt Damon.”