Downsizing (15)

GENERALLY speaking, to "downsize" is to rationalise your outgoings in order to survive: to shed staff to save a business, to move to a smaller home to make better use of your personal finances. In Alexander Payne’s eccentric new comedy, the stakes are far greater – nothing less than the survival of the planet – and the reduction far more dramatic.

In a recognisable future, Norwegian scientists posit their process of "cellular reduction" as the solution to the planet-threatening problem of over-population: if you can’t reduce the number of footprints, they suggest, then shrink them.

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In a charming, oddball prologue, these idealistic geniuses unveil both their newly miniaturised selves and their giant plan at a scientific conference entitled Human Scale And Sustainability. It’s a miracle, alone, that the Norwegian at his mini-lectern isn’t squashed in the rush of excited delegates.

Ten years later, the voluntary (and irreversible) procedure is up and running. Given that saving the planet isn’t motivation enough for most, the project is now given the added spin of self-interest – the massively increased value of your bank balance in a world where miniature also means cut-price. Become small – 13cm small – and you can strike it rich.

And so when occupational therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), both desperate to break free of their humdrum life, are told that In Leisureland they will become millionaires – and that a mansion with all the trimmings awaits them – they decide to take the plunge.

Of course, Payne being a thoughtful filmmaker whose specialities are social satire and human foible, his Everyman protagonist – played with pot-bellied believability by Damon – will discover there’s a catch or two in his pact with a miniaturised utopia.

Payne doesn’t stint on creating the mechanics of his conceit. A brilliant sequence outlines Paul’s transformation: the shaving of all body hair, irrigation, the removal of fillings – with new, tiny ones taking their place at the other end. After reduction, row upon row of tiny, putty-like figures are scooped up with spatulas, before being transported to their new, bio-domed world.

Paul is a nice, earnest, drab fellow, with little idea of his expectations beyond having a "better life". So he’s ill-equipped for the immediate knock-back to his one-note dream – a terrific, initial twist, with repercussions that expose a dimension of Leisureland that isn’t covered by the brochure. As one character observes: “You’re immediately rich … unless you’re poor. And then you’re just poor.”

Unfortunately, Paul’s arrival in Leisureland also corresponds with a downturn in the film’s own fortunes – not least because Payne and regular writing partner Jim Taylor mysteriously lose interest in their sci-fi set-up.

There is amusement, in the form of Paul’s decadent, Eurotrash neighbour, played with reliable relish by Christoph Waltz; and food for thought, when a former Vietnamese dissident with a wooden leg (Hong Chau) introduces Paul to a shanty town of outcasts and oppressed from the outside world, shrunk against their will.

But along with the reappearance of the Norwegian scientists and their environmental concerns, there’s too much going on, characters and themes vying for attention, with nothing quite sticking in the mind. And as committed as Damon’s performance is, Paul is too reactive, too malleable a figure to truly engage as the audience’s eyes and ears.

A little like its protagonist, the film ultimately lacks energy and focus. To date, Payne’s films, including Election, Sideways and The Descendants, have been extremely polished but modest in scale. He responds to Downsizing’s larger production and special effects with skill and assurance; but the more he embellishes his high-concept conceit, the smaller it becomes.