“Downsized”

How an imaginative idea with such promise for comedy could turn into a sappy, moralizing mess is the truly sad tale. “We are meant for something bigger” turns both greedy needies and noble problem-fixers into a tale that switches tone after twenty minutes and loses all semblance of intent. The writers Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor are at fault. “Five years later” and “ten years later” is jarring, even star Matt Damon looks lost. This sci-fi satire can itself be satirized.

“Downsizing” ’s premise seems simple enough: overpopulation has made the earth unsustainable. Volunteer to be a “miniputian” and have every cell reduced. Humans are reduced to 4 or 5 inches. The only side effect of going small is minor dehydration. The pluses are waste reduction and the elimination of financial anxiety. The procedure is irreversible.

After four years, thirty-six downsizers hold all their refuse in half of a regular-sized garbage bag. 152,000 dollars in home equity translates to 12.5 million in “Leisureland”, where diamond jewelry  dazzles and utility bills are low. Reduced human scale is explained in a TED talk. Motivational posters dot the walls at a high school reunion. Paul and Audrey Safranek ( Matt Damon & Kristen Wiig ) are interested since they are struggling financially and a few “reduced” former classmates are doing well and laud the procedure. With megaphones the size of toothpick they chant cheerleader fashion:  “Go get small!” The first twenty minutes are funny. I especially liked the keepsake marriage bands and the transitional therapy sessions, and the mass reduction chambers, the small group Tai Chi . There are worries about small people being able to get into the country. The movie’s concept is clever. Downsizing makes sense, but the film’s conclusion does not.

Audrey bows out at the last minute, but not before her husband is shrunk. Silly apologies and divorce ensue. A year passes and Paul begins dating a single mom. We learn that Leisureland has no birds or insects yet, and no chervil ! Then the film falls apart. Nineteen seventies disco parties with drugs and nudity are supposed to help cheer our little man from Omaha. Christoph Waltz, as the rich, partying neighbor, Dusan Murkovic, plays his part to the hilt. Pool scenes are boring, but when Paul is slipped a drug and starts dreaming of his ex, viewers are snoring. Paul passes out only to see the cleaning people enter in the morning. One cleaning lady has a limp, and Paul tries to help her. Asian actress Hong Chau plays Ngoc. The stereotyped syntax is cute, but bordering on racist. “ You come with me. help my friend, now”. “Leisureland people too selfish.”

As a Vietnamese dissident, she has lost her leg below the knee. Ngoc ministers to her community, outside of the resplendent Leisureland. Her friend, Gladys, dies and butterflies hold symbolic import. Cliches abound. Paul carries Ngoc up seven flights of tenement stairs, removes her peg leg, massages her thigh, and falls in love. They go back to Norway to the original small people colony.

There is more environmental danger. Methane gas is destabilizing the world. Only three-percent of the world has heeded the call to downsize. Nobel Prize winning scientists tell us that it will take 8,000 years for the Earth to stabilize. An underground, geo-thermally powered vault becomes Noah’s Ark. Not even lovely shots of fjords in Norway can save this picture, now. Middle Earth reigns. On the positive side, you will remember Ngoc’s bossy questions and orders. “ What kind of fuck do you give me?” “ You go down stupid hole!”

The ending spouts bromides like: “ When you know death comes soon, you look around more closely.” Get ready for the butterflies…no kidding.

Watch the trailer, and skip the movie. And, as the film says, “Don’t get short with me.”