From Big to Honey I Shrunk the Kids, most cinematic gimmicks that involve abrupt changes in age, stature or gender play out as broader comedies.
But in Downsizing, a remarkably simple concept — how the world might be different if technology allowed people to shrink themselves to about 5 inches tall — is presented as a thought-provoking scenario with real-world relevance. The latest project from director Alexander Payne (Sideways) is an ambitious if mildly pretentious morality tale that balances absurdity and sincerity.
It takes place in the near future, as the “downsizing” movement is gaining popularity as a method of reducing overpopulation and easing financial burdens. Some friends convince occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), of the benefits, so they sign up for the irreversible procedure, and a spot in a special community where everything is compressed to scale.
After some complications, Paul later becomes entangled in the lives of a free-spirited neighbor (Christoph Waltz) with a penchant for lavish parties, a Vietnamese maid (Hong Chau) dealing with a series of personal setbacks, and the Scandinavian scientist (Rolf Lassgard) who pioneered the breakthrough procedure but has since evolved into a wacky conspiracy theorist.
Give credit to Payne and co-screenwriter Jim Taylor for the audacity to follow through on their far-fetched yet fascinating concept and for playing it mostly with a straight face, both technically and narratively, even if some of the logistics and moral complexities don’t feel completely thought through.
In fact, Downsizing could benefit from a lighter touch and some, ahem, downsizing of its own. However, it maintains emotional grounding amid the abundant quirks and contrivances and adeptly steers its story in unexpected directions. The performances are terrific throughout.
In terms of the human drama, perhaps it’s not as intriguing to watch Paul’s adventures as it is to imagine yourself under similar circumstances. He does provide the audience with a window into his pint-sized world during what amounts to an elaborate midlife crisis.
Still, the film works because you believe it could, not will, happen. There are plenty of big ideas along the way — about the meek inheriting the Earth, or that by becoming small, Paul serves a larger purpose. Regardless of whether you buy in, the film persuades in its argument that maybe bigger isn’t better, after all.