Alexander Payne’s comedies, in equal parts caustic and sweet-natured, revolve around the misadventures of ordinary Americans. His new movie Downsizing isn’t, as the title suggests a satire about the diminished economic circumstances of the human race, but the name of a project aimed at delivering a radical solution to climate change, overpopulation, disappearing resources and excessive consumption. The setting is the foreseeable future, the theme one that has been previously explored by the 1990s Japanese television series Ultra Q. Norwegian scientist Jorgen (Rold Lassgard) has created a method to shrink human beings to five-inch versions of themselves. Jorgen tests out his discovery on himself and a group of willing participants, and the idea spreads all over the world, including the land of super-sized burgers and gargantuan homes with two-car garages.
Among the latest potential residents of Leisureland, a community of little people, are occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). They are taken with the idea of shrinking themselves to better afford the luxuries that are absent from their normal-sized lives, but Audrey chickens out at the last hour, leaving Paul to a life of potential loneliness and boredom. A pair of flamboyant neighbours (Christoph Waltz and Udi Kier) and militant Vietnamese activist Ngoc (Hong Chau), who has been shrunk against her will, introduce Paul to a new life and a new set of adventures, many of which are not nearly as amusing or insightful as they could have been.
Part of the movie’s inability to carry through its conceit is the startling lack of difference between normal existence and Leisureland. Every detail in the regular world is replicated without imagination, whether it is the clothes, the furniture, and even the happy pill that Paul swallows at a party. Without no distinguishing feature or uniqueness, Leisureland is eventually a miniaturised mirror image of the world as we know it, with the same prejudices, inequalities and false beliefs. Shrunken bodies do not limit the human proclivity for bad choices and questionable decisions. As the none-too-bright Paul stumbles about in his quest for meaning, his experiences are no different than if he had been teleported a Norwegian Legoland or, for that matter, a human colony on Mars.
Damon’s telegenic charm injects some interest in his bland character’s journey. Paul’s encounters with Ngoc shake him out of his white-collar stupor and sense of entitlement, and even though Hong Chau is saddled with a questionable pidgin English accent and a bad temper, she emerges as the movie’s most lively character. Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor don’t tack enough inches on to what could have been a nifty idea for our greed-filled times. The most sustainable idea in Downsizing is that the Utopia promised by the titular project is no better than the anxiety-ridden present. Whether at 56 inches or five, humankind is doomed, and Downsizing gets at least this bit right.