We’re getting some of our most genuine love stories out of surreal fantasies these days.
Last week, Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” built a wonderfully touching relationship between a nice lady and a man-fish. The animated masterpiece “The Red Turtle” told a poetic version of a similar story last winter. Now Alexander Payne’s wistful, ironic, slightly unnerving “Downsizing” examines the romantic options of humans reduced to 5 inches tall.
Of the three, “Downsizing,” absurd as it is, offers the most relatable scenario. It plays like real life viewed through a microscope.
Set in a slightly alternative universe, Payne’s story paints a near future when Norwegian researchers have discovered the golden fleece of bioengineering. With a few medical procedures, they can reduce a human adult to a homunculus just 5 inches tall. It’s a win-win situation as the scientists see it. Smaller humans leave smaller carbon footprints in their path, consume far less and can live like royalty in dollhouse-sized mansions that they could never afford at human scale.
A marketing push tells everyday people that this new, hyper-effective weight loss program is just what they need. Nebbishy occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon, every man’s everyman) and his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), are intrigued by the pitch. Audrey is bored, living in a house beneath her aspirations. Paul, a nice guy whose beer buddies offer little of value, might as well be adrift with the living dead.
Friends who have already signed on to the reducing program visit in 1/10 scale and extol New Mexico’s Disney-esque little Leisureland like evangelists. Why not jump down the rabbit hole? What could possibly go wrong?
“Downsizing” is set in everyday Omaha and Leisureland’s brave new (little) world, and it never stumbles as it moves between the two. Payne, who has given us deeply grounded comedies such as “Nebraska,” “Sideways,” and “Election,” directly tackles those pesky “could this really work” doubts in your head. His film is gonzo but not insane.
There’s an ingenious step-by-step logic as we watch Paul’s pre-op preparation. Medical attendants painstakingly go through his checklist just as if he were having a hernia repaired, which leads to a solid colon hydrotherapy gag. Like they say, it’s funny because it’s true. Watching the nurses use spatulas to pick up unconscious little patients after the shrinking process is funny because it’s weird.
The story doesn’t pivot into science fiction once Paul is shrunken. Payne sensibly avoids hostile spiders, deluges of raindrops and similar predicaments that harassed “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”
It’s the unanticipated nuisances of Paul’s diminished status that draw the attention here. Social and personal problems don’t vanish from his Lilliputian life. There’s still a use for a servant class among the well-to-do. People fall in and out of love. Neighbors are irritating. There are still standard-issue disappointments and reasons to get drunk. Why would it be different? The film is packed full of such real-world insights. You can shrink, it tells us, but you can’t hide.
Payne always honors the truth of his characters’ melancholy while acknowledging their struggle to be rid of it. Damon is fine in this role, playing a man determined to be as helpful as possible despite life’s frequent failures to reward — or even recognize — his efforts.
He has a rare gift for looking forlorn, just as Christoph Waltz, who plays his hedonistic party host neighbor Dusan, is an expert at sardonic half-smiles. An Eastern European expat who sees a Wild West of profitable opportunities in tinytown, Dusan behaves like a courtly pickpocket. Waltz hits the screen with a ton of energy, as Dusan tries to get Paul to smile, dammit, smile, gradually turning from an alluring annoyance to a valued friend.
It’s when Paul meets hot-tempered Vietnamese labor rights activist Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau) among Leisureland’s cleaning staff that he begins exploring ways to make every day count. Credit Payne’s subversive sense of humor for imagining a character shrunken against her will and trafficked into the country inside a TV container. When the group travels to Norway to consult with the creator of the shrinking process and they encounter a cult committed to moving the little people to a new path, it’s Ngoc Lan who chides Paul for drinking the group’s lemonade.
Chau is a force of nature in the role, sparky as flint and funny as hell. Her contribution helps “Downsizing” make valid points and poke fun at our diminishing human interaction. In a world with a decreasing amount of face-to-face time, not unlike our own, Paul and Ngoc Lan’s bickering partnership is Payne’s hope for the human race. It’s a surreal comedy that never goes for easy laughs but works in every scene to reach you on a deeper visceral level.