Downsizing has an ingenious central conceit but doesn't quite measure up
There's wit and invention galore in the opening segment of Downsizing, a clever comedic sci-fi drama in which socially conscious citizens shrink in size to protect the Earth's resources. But overall, it's a film that fails to measure up, writes Damon Smith
SMALL is beautiful – and highly desirable – in director Alexander Payne's quirky comedy drama set in the near future, when socially conscious citizens in our overcrowded world undergo cellular reduction to shrink their bodies.
Volunteers live in picture-perfect micro-communities, which are less of a drain on the Earth's dwindling resources and far cheaper to maintain. A blue-collar worker's wage comfortably buys a palatial abode in a downsized neighbourhood. You can have it all when you're 12cm (4.7in) tall.
The gung-ho miniaturised American dream turns sour in Payne's film, co-written by Jim Taylor, which chronicles the intolerable strain that downsizing places on one fractured marriage.
Wit and invention are in thrilling abundance in an assured opening 30 minutes, augmented with slick digital effects that juxtapose the everyday and shrunken worlds.
Unfortunately, the script's volatile cocktail of genres – dystopian social satire, humane drama, doomed romance – congeals before the film has concluded its laboured second hour.
Dr Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) and a team of Norwegian scientists dazzle the world with the results of their downsizing experiment. The irreversible procedure impresses Omaha-based occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon).
"Biggest thing since landing on the moon. Bigger!" he gushes to his sceptical mother (Jayne Houdyshell).
At a high school reunion, Paul and wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) meet miniaturised former classmates Dave and Carol Johnson (Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe), who are effusive about their decision to shrink.
The Safraneks agree they need a radical change in circumstances to reinvigorate their stagnant marriage.
During transition surgery, Audrey gets cold feet and Paul becomes a heartbroken, lonely bachelor in the tiny community of Leisureland. One year later, the Safraneks are divorced and Paul trades Leisureland luxury for a single bedroom apartment in the same block as brash playboy Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz).
The straight-talking hedonist introduces Paul to fun-loving pal Joris (Udo Kier) and Vietnamese cleaner Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a vociferous political activist with an ill-fitting prosthetic leg.
She opens Paul's eyes to the intolerance and cruelty in his brave new miniaturised world.
Ironically, Downsizing comes up short. An ingenious central conceit can't stretch to 135 minutes and the emotional pay-off is ultimately unsatisfying.
Damon delivers an appealing performance as a kind-hearted everyman seduced by science, but he is overshadowed by scene-stealing and sometimes garish supporting performances.
Two-time Oscar winner Waltz furiously chews scenery as an ageing, foul-mouthed lothario, while Thai-born actress Chau, whose parents were Vietnamese refugees, could snag her first Oscar nomination for her eye-catching portrayal of an outspoken dissident, who was downsized against her will.
The character's broken English is a high wire act, strung tightly between hilarity and racial caricature. I was charmed as Chau walked that tightrope but some audiences may feel she wobbles alarmingly and tumbles off.
DOWNSIZING (15, 135 mins)
Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Comedy/Drama/Romance. Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Rolf Lassgard, Jason Sudeikis, Maribeth Monroe, Jayne Houdyshell. Director: Alexander Payne
Released: January 24