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Alexander Payne makes big mistake with small story

Kristen Wiig, center left, and Matt Damon, center right, in “Downsizing.”
Kristen Wiig, center left, and Matt Damon, center right, in “Downsizing.” Paramount Pictures

Director Alexander Payne got our votes when he offered a brilliantly satirical look at politics and popularity with his insightful high school-based comedy “Election.” He showed with “Sideways” that he could present a story as firm and dry as a prized red wine.

He’s done neither with his latest offering, “Downsizing.” All the Oscar-winning filmmaker has shown with the production is how he came up short whether trying to make social commentary, dealing with political satire or attempting just to be funny. The film is a massively muddled mess of ideas that might have made more of an impact if Matt Damon’s performance wasn’t so painfully bland. It probably wouldn’t have mattered with another actor, but it sure couldn’t have hurt.

The downsizing here is literal. A Norwegian scientist has discovered a way to shrink a person who is 6 feet tall to 5 inches. A world of Lilliputian-sized people would put less strain on the ecology and be a financial boom because houses, cars, food, etc., would all be so small, a person’s personal wealth explodes to gargantuan size.

After living a life of mediocrity, Paul (Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig) Safranek decide to spend the money to be downsized. Things don’t go as planned, and Paul finds himself living a miserable existence in the tiny world. It gets worse when he meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was shrunk against her will as punishment for her protests. Now she cleans up after the rich and famous.

There are multiple places where the film appears to be ready to take some kind of stand but then crumbles in indecisive writing.

It’s the off-target way Payne presents Ngoc that provides the film’s most brutally bad moments. Instead of making her the focal point of the idea that size doesn’t matter, the director strips away any power Ngoc might have by making Chau play the character with an accent in which every word she speaks sounds like a cat dragging its claws down a chalkboard making a baby cry while a car alarm goes unattended.

Payne’s main theme is there will be haves and have-nots no matter what size the population.

The idea of there always being a class system would be far more realistic if Payne had not made the poor and downtrodden only minorities. There has to be at least one or two white people who had problems and ended up on the wrong side of the wall. But, by showing only minorities, Payne has turned this element into a heavy-handed slap in the sociological face.

“Downsizing” needed a smarter and lighter touch to make it a rich satire. But that doesn’t happen. Or, Payne could have just gone full-blown sight gags and made this a broad comedy. There are a few funny bits of physical humor, such as the moving van of mementoes, but the moments are way too sparring.

Downsizing

1/2

Rated: R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use. Starring: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau. Director: Alexander Payne. Running time: 135 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 9, Edwards 14, Edwards 12, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.

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