It's curious that so bold a film as Alexander Payne's apocalyptic cli-fi satire Downsizing fails due to a fundamental lack of nerve. Payne has dared to craft the rare studio feature to take seriously the inevitability of climate change, to pose hard questions about the way we live now, to examine the fundamental inequalities that make American comforts possible. The first half hour or so, as Payne lays out his science-fiction premise, is terrifically funny: Some Norwegian scientists have hit on a method of shrinking humans to Smurf height. Their goal: Reduce the strain we each place upon this planet's resources. A decade later, this new technology has been fully commoditized and sold to America. Retirement as a tiny person is much more affordable than retirement for the full-sized, and a cavernous McMansion for the small costs a fraction of what one does for the large. The sharpest sequence comes when Payne's latest naif/drip (Matt Damon) and his wife (Kristen Wiig), still full sized, visit the tiny community's sales department. Payne's arch everyday deadpan edges into new modes here: Swiftian satire and Brooksian sight gags, all sharply realized.
But as Downsizing wears on -- and I do mean wears -- what becomes dismayingly apparent is that Payne and his co-writer, Jim Taylor, have made a mistake quite like that of the tiny people they're parodying. They've not brought fresh assumptions to a new age. At the midway point, they introduce a potentially fascinating new character, Hong Chau's Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident whose government shrank her. Unfortunately, we only know her character through the Damon character's perspective, which renders her saintly and mysterious, an exocitized guide to inequality and enlightenment.