'Downsizing': The Incredible Shrinking Matt Damon

In an era when movies struggle with a deficit of intriguing ideas, Downsizing wrestles with a surplus of them.

Alexander Payne’s imaginative new film is a jab at materialism, an environmental commentary, a love story, an allegory about immigration and contemporary economics, and a movie in which Matt Damon is the size of a Bic pen.

Damon plays Paul, a hardworking and fundamentally decent Midwesterner, though at midlife he hasn’t much to show for it. At night he and his wife (Kristen Wiig) watch TV pitchman (Neil Patrick Harris) talk about the latest craze, called downsizing: Shrink yourself down to a few inches, and move to a planned community — called Leisure Land — of tiny people and tiny houses where meager savings can stretch almost infinitely and make you effectively rich. You also consume and pollute much less — materialism disguised as virtue, so can probably expect a Whole Foods in Leisure Land.

When they run into a downsized classmate (Jason Sudeikis) at a high school reunion, he sells them on the idea, and off they go.

Of course, like all utopias conceived by man, this world is compromised by the fact that it contains men. Leisure Land has a rigidly controlled economy (you have your choice of three Cheesecake Factories), but a black market forms, headed by Paul’s noisy Euro-playboy neighbor (Christoph Waltz). Paul also befriends his cleaning woman (Hong Chau), and follows her home to a find city behind the city, a Leisure Land underclass where there is little leisure.

Seeing these things through the Leisure Land microcosm — so finite and graspable — causes Paul to think about morality. It’s not a stretch to think that Payne wants the viewer to think about them as well.

To that end, Damon plays Paul in everyman mode — unflappable, thoughtful, and deferential. But he underplays a little too much here and allows his character to get lost in the rush of ideas that swarm the narrative as the movie builds to a busy conclusion.

A more charitable view: Damon is generously giving ground to costars Waltz and Chau, who’s been described as a revelation in this movie, I guess by people who didn’t see her in Inherent Vice. There, she played a happy hooker in a role that could easily have gone wrong, but in her hands ended up being human and scene-stealingly funny. She works the same magic here, and has been nominated for a Golden Globe as best supporting actress.

And, although the sci-fi trappings of Downsizing make it seem like a big departure from Payne’s previous work — The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt — it is the same in important ways. It’s a movie about a man suddenly separated from people he’s loved, trying to learn how to live again.

No small task.

MOVIES

Downsizing

  • Directed by Alexander Payne. With Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, and Neil Patrick Harris. Distributed by Paramount Pictures.
  • Parents guide: R (language)
  • Running time: 2 hours, 15 mins.
  • Playing at: Area theaters