The utter anonymity of Damon in the lead role is Problem A. He plays Paul Safranek, a listless Nebraskan physical therapist with all the charisma of a pot of off-white paint who turns to downsizing to spice up his life. Yes, Payne’s films (like About Schmidt, The Descendants, and Nebraska) are often about Midwestern men in the grip of middle-aged malaise, but Damon goes so far as to make his character seem practically comatose. Why does Paul want to shrink himself? Because his life is boring. What happens after he shrinks himself? His life stays boring.
The first half hour of the film (which is quite long at 135 minutes) focuses on the alluring pitch of downsizing. When you’re five inches tall, everything costs next to nothing, since your material needs are so much smaller. You’re saving the planet, because you produce so little waste. And you’re still a citizen who can vote and even attend parties (as long as someone’s kind enough to carry you around in a miniature box). There’s one major catch, though: Once you shrink, there’s no way to reverse the process.
Downsizing’s rich premise offers Payne many chances to develop some intriguing sci-fi allegories. There are hints of political tension between the “bigs” and “smalls,” given that the planet starts to become depressingly empty as more humans move into tiny colonies. The loss of people to downsizing may call to mind America’s abandonment of the Rust Belt, or migration to the suburbs. But the script drops only a few hints about such real-life parallels before hastily unearthing, but not fully exploring, other big ideas.
Paul has a wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), who amounts to not much more than a one-dimensional villain. In his shrunken colony, Paul meets Dusan (a delightful Christoph Waltz), a simpering playboy who makes his money on the black market, buying one Cuban cigar and divvying them up into a thousand little replicants for his small friends. This, again, feels like a fun opportunity to dig more deeply into the world Payne has created—but Dusan and his even more flamboyant buddy Joris (Udo Kier, wonderful as ever) don’t have much to do beyond dispensing bon mots.
The real engine of change for Paul is Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist and refugee in Paul’s town who opens his eyes to the systemic oppression inherent in any idyllic suburban neighborhood, be it regular-sized or tiny. Chau’s performance is energetic and heartfelt, but Ngoc Lan Tran seems to exist only to help Paul realize a truth about himself: He’s not going to better himself simply by fleeing to a packaged “perfect community,” and he needs to recognize the good in him to finally feel comfortable about his place in the world.
All fine lessons, but they’re brought about so laboriously as the story hops from place to place, ending up in Dr. Asbjørnsen’s downsized Norwegian community in a bewildering narrative tangent that dominates the final act of the film. Ngoc Lan Tran—who uses a prosthetic foot, routinely praises Jesus, and mostly speaks in haltingly delivered homilies—never gets to feel like anything more than a salve for Paul’s white guilt, there to reassure him that he’s actually a good guy.