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‘Downsizing’ a misfire from usually reliable Alexander Payne

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Kristen Wiig and Matt Damon can’t save “Downsizing.” (Courtesy Paramount Pictures)

“Downsizing” is a puzzling anomaly in filmmaker Alexander Payne’s oeuvre, a bizarre misfire of preposterous proportions. It goes so far off the rails that there isn’t even any train of thought left.

It seems to have at least the beginnings of an idea, however. A Norwegian scientist invents a method for shrinking humans down to a height of about 5 inches, and proposes it as a means for saving the earth.

In essence, smaller humans use fewer resources and generate far less trash. As a bonus, money goes much further. A normal salary in the big-sized world equates to a luxury retirement in world of little people, called Leisure Land Estates.

Physical therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) can barely make ends meet in his boring job, and after a long opening setup that takes place over several years, and after meeting an old high school pal (Jason Sudeikis) who has “downsized,” Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to take the plunge.

The movie spells out the procedure in agonizing detail, including the need to pull out all a person’s teeth. Paul goes through with it and, when he awakens, is distraught to learn that Audrey balked and decided to remain full-sized.

She disappears from the movie, never to be seen again.

Paul sulks and plods through small life for a while until he meets his slick, confident playboy neighbor Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz).

He parties with Dusan for a long time before he meets Dusan’s cleaning lady, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), an illegal Vietnamese immigrant who survived a harrowing journey to Leisure Land inside a TV box.

He agrees to help fix her artificial leg and becomes attached to her. Then they meet the Norwegian scientists, and then they learn that the world is coming to an end, etc.

“Downsizing” — which might have worked as a mini-series — is so brutally long, and takes so many right-angle doglegs, it’s difficult to imagine that earlier screenplay drafts were thrown out; things just keep being tacked on. At least an hour feels like excess flab.

It clearly wants to be a preachy parable about how we’re destroying the planet, and even though it purports to be a comedy and science-fiction story — genres that normally provide excellent ways to subtly hide messages — “Downsizing” delivers its themes in the most front-loaded, painfully obvious way.

It’s baffling. Director Payne is usually extremely reliable: His very fine, based-in-reality comedy-dramas “About Schmidt,” “Sideways” and “Nebraska” do not resemble “Downsizing” in the slightest.

Co-written by his old cohort Jim Taylor, the new movie is closer to the pair’s earlier black comedies “Citizen Ruth” and “Election,” but without their sharp, wicked wit.

“Downsizing” most closely resembles Payne’s least successful feature, “The Descendants,” which began as a film about dealing with grief and ended up being a lesson about land ownership. But it still had good parts.

“Downsizing” offers no such mix. It’s more like watching a full-sized idea slowly shrinking, disappearing into so much nothing.

REVIEW
Downsizing
Two stars
Starring Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Written by Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor
Directed by Alexander Payne
Rated R
Running time 2 hours, 15 minutes

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