Downsizing
Directed by: Alexander Payne
Starring: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig
Rated R for language, including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.
2 hrs. 15 min.

If you look at the best work of director Alexander Payne, he has a knack for connecting comedy and drama. While you may laugh at his characters, you also know that he is revealing raw human truth.

Downsizing has those moments, and it even has empathetic characters, but those characters are buffeted by a lot of extraneous story that makes you question the film’s purpose. What is this movie about? Sci-fi? Social commentary? End of days? Maybe all the above — in which case, Payne has thrown in so much, it feels like a car weaving on the road with luggage and boxes flying out the windows.

In a Norwegian science lab, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård) is the first to discover how to proportionally downsize a living creature. His experiments eventually lead him to successfully replicate the experiment on people, and a series of downsized colonies begin to pop up around the world.

Paul and Audrey Safranek (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are a middle-class couple living in Omaha. At a high school class reunion, they meet some friends who have been downsized. Paul is inspired and encourages Audrey to share a new adventure in tiny living.

All goes as planned until Paul gets a call in his downsized hospital room from Audrey, who tearfully admits she didn’t go through with the process. They end up signing full-size divorce papers a year later.

Paul blunders his way through his realigned life. Whether trying to date a single mother, having an ecstasy-filled night with his upstairs friend (European playboy and smuggler Dusan Mirkovic, played by Christoph Waltz) or being pulled into the life of a Vietnamese cleaning lady, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), Paul begins to search for purpose in his new 5-inch life. His search eventually comes down to a simple choice: Does he remain above or below ground? Connected to his friends on a dying planet or safely burrowed deep in a mountain?

The fact that I’m asking these existential questions should give you some clues about Downsizing’s shifts in mood. It’s hard to tell what Payne is up to, as if he wants to pull a rabbit out of a hat, but can’t decide which rabbit or which hat to use. The changes can be jolting. From Paul’s first trip beyond his colony walls to a cruise up a Norwegian fjord, Downsizing is quick with ideas but rough on coherence.

While Damon is the film’s central focus, his nice-guy performance feels overshadowed by the rascality of Waltz and the bombast of Chau. He seems to be the film’s foil, the guy that everybody picks on because he won’t do anything to fight back.

This is awkward because Waltz and Chau breathe life into this movie, even as it takes a morose twist toward a Norwegian apocalypse. Is it an inside joke that while Paul is angsting about the end of the world, Dusan couldn’t care less if Arctic methane emissions are at critical mass or that Lan Tran just wants to go home and get busy cleaning houses, feeding her friends and bossing Damon around? Frankly, having had enough of Payne’s dance with insufferable Norwegian gloom, I don’t blame them.

What’s most surprising about Downsizing is that there is so much material from his original premise — political, social and otherwise — waiting like ripe fruit to be plucked. Alas, most of it just goes to waste on the ground.

You can pick and choose what you like in this film. Just don’t overwork yourself trying to make sense of it. Plus, it turns out that being 5 inches tall isn’t so different. It’s still the same world, the same class system, the same noisy neighbors in the upstairs apartment. In fact, downsizing isn’t all that different from the big bag of hassles you put up with every day you walk out your front door.