It’s hard to say what’s better about the first half of Alexander Payne’s wonderfully weird — or is it weirdly wonderful? — “Downsizing”: the audacity of its premise or the delicious skill with which Payne executes that premise, detail by comically ingenious detail.
The fact that the film shifts discernibly in the second half, going places and tackling ideas one wouldn’t necessarily expect, will disappoint some and please others. But there’s no doubt about one thing: The director’s considerable talent is on full display here. Let him keep shifting; we’ll keep watching.
As we’ve seen in films like “Nebraska,” “About Schmidt” and others, Payne likes to make movies about what some might call small people: ordinary folks in unremarkable places, struggling to make things work. In “Downsizing,” he has made a movie about really small people. As in, 5 inches tall.
We begin with a groundbreaking discovery. A renowned Norwegian scientist has figured out how humans can reduce their footprint and save Earth from overpopulation. It’s called downsizing, and it’s irreversible, but if enough people do it, it could save humanity. Paul Safranek (an excellent Matt Damon in the ultimate Everyman role) watches on TV with astonishment.
Shift to 10 years later. Downsizing is catching on. Entire communities have sprouted up around the world. Paul and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), childless and still living in the house where Paul grew up, encounter Paul’s now 5-inch friend Dave (Kansas City’s Jason Sudeikis) at a school reunion. Dave explains the best thing about going small: the economic benefits. At that size, you can live in total luxury for a fraction of the price.
Paul and Audrey go visit a downsized community, and a saleswoman explains how they’d suddenly be multimillionaires, able to afford a mansion with a pool and tennis court. Paul and Audrey decide to take the plunge.
When Paul awakes from his downsizing procedure, he’s greeted by a surprise we won’t reveal. Suffice it to say that a year later, things aren’t going well. Then he meets his neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a Serbian playboy who has a shady trade business and throws noisy parties.
Through Dusan, Paul meets someone who will change his life, not to mention change the tone and direction of the rest of the film. Her name is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau, in a terrific breakout performance), a Vietnamese dissident who was downsized against her will and arrived in America in a TV box. She survives by cleaning houses and lives in a slum behind a big wall.
The last part of the film takes the group to the idyllic fjords of Norway, where the original downsized community still exists. It is here where the issue of climate change and the Earth’s sustainability takes center stage. Revealing any more would spoil the surprise.
Except to say that Paul learns more than he expected about making a difference in the world and what it means to be big or small.
Spoiler alert: It might not be about size.
Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.