In a way, Downsizing, the new film from director Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) could be considered ahead of its time. Several years ago, well before the trend of living in tiny houses and embracing a minimalist lifestyle took off, Payne and screenwriter Jim Taylor started working on a movie about a group of Norwegian scientists that discovers how to shrink humans to the point that they're five inches tall.
A Modest Proposal-like satire, their film would poke fun of the excessive nature of modern-day society. It took a few years, but they finally finished the script and then set out to make Downsizing.
But as much as the resulting film's concept works and the satire hits home, the movie, which clocks in at a hefty 135 minutes, struggles to tell a cohesive story and limps to its conclusion. It opens area-wide on Friday.
The film's central characters, Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig), live in a modest home in Omaha. But they'd like to upgrade. Their financial adviser, however, warns them they simply can't afford to. So when high school friends Dave (Jason Sudeikis) and Carol (Maribeth Monroe) show up at their high school reunion as little people (they've gone "small"), they begin to think that might be an option. After all, they can afford a much bigger house if the materials don't cost that much.
After some discussion, they agree to undergo the treatment that will shrink them to the size of small dolls. Problem is, Audrey backs out at the last minute. Paul doesn't realize she hasn't undergone treatment until it's too late. He's become small and has to live in their huge house by himself. He eventually moves out of the house and winds up in an apartment building. His upstairs neighbor, the flamboyant party boy Dusan (Christoph Waltz) regularly throws extravagant parties and takes to Paul. While helping Dusan clean up after a particularly wild night, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese activist who was shrunk against her will by the government. He befriends her and soon learns that small society is just as stratified as any other society — Ngoc and her fellow housecleaners live in a shoddy part of town.
The film eventually turns into a road movie as Paul, Dusan and Ngoc venture to the first-ever community of smalls on a secret voyage. Along the way, Paul has an epiphany about his life and the importance of leaving a small footprint upon the globe. Thankfully, Waltz lightens the mood of the movie which features too much drama and not enough humor.