The first 30 minutes of “Downsizing” from director Alexander Payne are fascinating.
The premise? That the world is on the path to self-destruction and that science has come up with a way to slash waste and environmental pollutants and all sorts of other things that seem to be propelling us toward doom. The solution? Shrink people down to about 5 inches tall.
It’s a complicated process. Say you’re a guy. You go into a room with other guys. You’re stripped naked. All your body hair is shaved off. You also have all dental fillings removed. In essence, you’re just a bunch of flesh. Then you’re wheeled into a special high-tech room with a bunch of other guys, and technicians turn a switch and watch you shrink through a special window.
Once the process is done, the workers come in and carefully scoop you up with a spatula and take you to a tiny hospital where you’ll recover and then move to the tiny LeisureWorld, a dome-like structure in New Mexico, where you’ll live in a tiny but luxurious house — because everything is so small, you can afford a lot more things.
Then Payne veers into the lives of Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig), who are in a lower-middle-class rut in Omaha. Paul has given up his medical dreams because he spent lots of time caring for his late debilitated mother. He sees the process of downsizing as a way to live comfortably. It also offers a new start.
But there are lots of problems, of course. They’ll be leaving their family and friends. They’ll be some of the first people to be downsized, so they’ll be experimenting with their futures. And they’ll face criticism from full-size people, who feel that the downsizing movement might hurt property values and wonder whether pint-size people should have the same civil rights as full-size folks.
Complications ensue, and once Paul makes his way to LeisureWorld — let’s avoid spoilers and just say that things aren’t completely as he expected.
He’s surprised that there’s still a class system in this promised Utopia, and that realization comes when he meets a Vietnamese political dissident (Hong Chau), who has been unwillingly downsized by a vile ruler and ends up in one of LeisureWorld’s lesser neighborhoods.
She’s the housekeeper for one of Paul’s new neighbors, a wild-partying Serbian played by Christoph Waltz, who makes a fortune by smuggling full-size products in to LeisureWorld and then chopping them up into suitably small portions and selling them for a big profit.
And all of a sudden, we’re following Paul as he works through a midlife crisis and tries to make new friends. And that’s where “Downsizing” starts to fall apart dramatically. It gets preachy at times. It feels tonally uneven. And a romance that develops seems unlikely, in part because of a poorly developed character.
Payne has a way of making amusing movies, from “Election” to “Nebraska.” His new movie has plenty of high-concept promise, but it doesn’t gel as a whole.
Still, the wry humor of the first 30 minutes will leave you with a smile.
Starring: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau
Rating: R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Theaters: Alamo Lakeline, Alamo Slaughter, Alamo South, Cedar Park, City Lights, Evo, Flix, Galaxy, Gateway, Hill Country, iPic, Lakeline, Moviehouse, Pflugerville 20, Round Rock, Southpark, Stone Hill, Westgate