Is there anything sadder than a smart premise gone to waste through misguided execution, like the one director Alexander Payne squanders in the dreary satire “Downsizing”?
Payne has a lot of targets in his sights, including consumerism, do-gooding scientists and the obliviousness of well-to-do people to see beyond their own navels. And the premise he and co-writer Jim Taylor devise seems like a perfect projectile to hit those targets: a near future where scientists have devised a way to shrink human bodies to 5 inches tall, a development the scientists say can solve the world’s ills of overpopulation and diminishing resources.
We experience the process vicariously through the Safraneks, Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a nondescript middle-class couple in Omaha. The Safraneks aren’t unhappy, really, but are less than satisfied with their jobs and lives. When they attend a high-school reunion and see an old friend, Dave (Jason Sudeikis), who has been reduced down to action-figure size, they start thinking about a major change.
Paul and Audrey go to Leisure Land, a “downsized” suburbia, where they get the spiel from a happy couple-turned-QVC salespeople (played by Neil Patrick Harris and Payne’s “Citizen Ruth” star, Laura Dern, in a gem of a scene). Once a couple are downsized, they’re told, their meager savings will buy the McMansion of their dreams. After a sales rep (Niecy Nash) runs them through the deal as if she were selling a timeshare, Paul and Audrey buy in.
But after the elaborate shrinking process — a sequence where much of the movie’s whimsical visual style is deployed — Paul discovers there are downsides to downsizing. He soon learns there are hustlers in the small world just like in the big one, like his hard-partying neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), who repurposes smuggled Cuban cigars for small people. There also are scroungers, like Dusan’s cleaning woman, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was shrunk against her will and is now aiding the small community’s hidden underclass.
Payne and Taylor could have plenty to say about the voracious haves and the striving have-nots, something that might resonate as the world’s ever-ravenous 1 percent takes all the pie. But the movie can never get past lazy stereotypes about the rich and the immigrant poor, particularly in Chau’s inexplicably Golden Globe-nominated performance as Ngoc Lan, which viewers may find merely annoying or an offensive Asian caricature.
When the movie starts heading into cut-to-the-bone satire, Payne veers off into shallower waters. This is especially true of the finale, a tour of the first small colony in Finland, a sequence that feels like the result of someone programming a computer to replicate a Wes Anderson movie.
But of all the miscalculations Payne makes on the stumbling journey of “Downsizing,” the biggest may be casting Damon as Paul. Sure, Damon has become the icon of the American Everyman, the normal guy who embodies red-white-and-blue values so well that our government has spent exorbitant amounts of money to rescue him in three films (“Saving Private Ryan,” “Interstellar” and “The Martian”).
Here, though, his brand of normal comes out as bland disinterest, his aw-shucks personality a dull mirror of ourselves. One wonders why Paul chose to be shrunk in the first place, considering that his character’s ambitions, like those of the movie he’s in, were already so small.
A satirical misfire from “Sideways” director Alexander Payne, a play-it-safe story of a near future where shrinking down to doll size is offered as a cure for society’s ills.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, Dec. 22.
Rating • R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
Running time • 135 minutes.