“Let’s get small” is more than just an old Steve Martin joke in “Downsizing,” the new Alexander Payne comedy that explores a world in which scientists have figured out a way to shrink human beings to a fraction of their former size. A miniaturized populace might save the earth from extinction, but if we’ve learned anything from science fiction, it’s that whatever journey humanity takes, it has a way of bringing both its best and worst aspects along for the ride.
Science fiction might feel like a leap for the very grounded Payne (working once again with co-writer Jim Taylor), but “Downsizing” operates from the recognizably humane level of such films as “Nebraska,” “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.” The genre’s finest work uses the science of the future to illuminate the world of today, and this film explores its subject and its characters on, literally, a micro and a macro level.
After Norwegian scientists discover a way to shrink lab mice — and then start their own tiny colony for five years before announcing their findings to the world — the planet slowly begins to adapt to the idea. For Omaha couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig), downsizing seems like an answer to their prayers. Paul had to give up pre-med to take care of his sick mom, and as an occupational therapist, he hasn’t been able to buy Audrey the home of their dreams.
When they visit Leisureland, a New Mexico suburb for the shrunken (downsized human beings are 0.0364 percent the size of their full-sized counterparts), they learn that their six figures in equity translate into eight figures once they become small. But while Paul goes through the complicated procedure, Audrey has a change of heart halfway through, abandoning him to his new life (and taking a chunk of their shared savings in the divorce).
Through his hedonistic upstairs neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), a slick Serbian specializing in mini-cigars and booze, Paul meets Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, “Big Little Lies”). A Vietnamese dissident who was shrunken against her will and smuggled into the U.S. inside a TV box, Ngoc Lan was a cause celèbre for a moment, but now she cleans the apartments of Leisureland’s wealthy. Hoping to use his therapy skills on her prosthetic foot, Paul grows close to her and discovers that even a tiny community has an exploited workforce and unaddressed poverty issues.
“Downsizing” presents a world that’s falling apart — even if Leisureland does boast three Cheesecake Factory locations — but Payne and Taylor bring their trademark acidic empathy; this film may share the darkly ironic “no matter where you go, there you are” message of a film like John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds,” but Payne and Taylor clearly believe in the power of people looking outside their own little worlds and taking in the big picture.
They also take great pains never to lose sight of the many ramifications of their premise: While pundits on TV tackle economic, environmental and political issues, Audrey’s father worries about never seeing her again. A drunk at a bar insists that the downsized deserve only a fraction of the vote. (Thankfully, he doesn’t suggest that they’re only three-fifths of a human being.) And even in Paradise, someone’s got to clean the toilets.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (“The Huntsmen: Winter’s War”) contrasts the planned-community sheen of Leisureland with the grim surroundings of Ngoc Lan’s slum apartment with the serenity of the original Norwegian colony (which Paul and Ngoc Lan eventually visit). The visuals allow the film to segue from near-absurdity (Paul is one of dozens of men simultaneously going through the miniaturization process, and the parade of gurneys resembles a Busby Berkeley number) to bleakly apocalyptic moments. Thankfully, Payne is selective about his big-small visual gags, so when they appear — as in a tiny cargo boat hauling a pyramid of six normal-size Absolut bottles — they land.
The ensemble couldn’t be better, from Damon in paunchy-dork mode (think “Contagion” rather than Jason Bourne) and a joyously sleazy Waltz to brief but memorable appearances by the likes of Margo Martindale, Jason Sudeikis, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Niecy Nash, Kerri Kenney and Neil Patrick Harris. If there’s a standout here, it’s Chau, taking a character who could easily have been a saintly martyr and making her funny, bristly, moving and occasionally profane. As awards season kicks up, she should definitely be part of the conversation.
“Downsizing” sees Payne and Taylor working on a larger palette than usual, but like their shrunken characters, the filmmakers’ humor and their sharp observation of the human condition have survived the change in size and scope.