‘Downsizing’ is ambitious, inventive, messy and too long

Paramount Pictures’ marketing department has a tough assignment for the holidays.

It has to sell “Downsizing” to Christmas moviegoers, so it’s hard to criticize them for trying to make it look like a wacky comedy.

The star power of Matt Damon didn’t encourage audiences to embrace the satire of “Suburbicon,” which grossed less than $6 million total after opening on 2,000 screens in October. No doubt with that number in mind, Paramount has been running television commercials prominently featuring former “Saturday Night Live” stars Kristen Wiig and Jason Sudeikis (who disappear after the first 45 minutes) alongside Damon and sight gags (downsizers partying with a giant bottle of vodka) that couldn’t make the final cut of a 135-minute movie.

That doesn’t mean “Downsizing” is a bad movie, but it’s going to be play better to audiences going to see a film by Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “The Descendants,” “Nebraska,” “About Schmidt”) than those tricked into thinking it’s an escapist comedy.

“Downsizing” is ambitious, inventive, messy, too long and not wholly satisfying. It starts as a satiric comedy, turns darker in its second act and ultimately becomes a love story, and those transitions don’t come smoothly.

It has a great premise. Scientists figure out a way to shrink humans safely to a fraction of their original size. Their motivation is altruistic. Smaller humans will consume less and produce less waste and carbon dioxide emissions. Downsizing can reverse climate change and preserve natural resources, ensuring the survival of the species for the next millennium.

However, those that embrace downsizing do it primarily for capitalistic reasons. A dollar in the real world has far more spending power in a downsized society, and those who can barely afford a bungalow full-sized can buy a palatial McMansion in a downsized community where life is nothing but golf and yoga classes and Cheesecake Factory dinners.

That’s the lure for Nebraska couple Paul and Audrey Safranek (Damon and Wiig), but Audrey chickens out during the downsizing process and gets most of their assets in the divorce, leaving Paul with a worse life downsized than he had before.

The screenplay by Payne and his long-time collaborator Jim Taylor is filled with great characters (particularly Christoph Waltz as a downsized profiteer) and believable twists. It makes complete sense that “downsizing” would be weaponized, and Hong Chau plays Ngoc Lan Tran, a dissident who was miniaturized by her government in an effort to diminish her voice. The one-time media celebrity is reduced to living in a tiny ghetto and cleaning apartments.

The production design by Stefania Cella also is a marvel, both in its mini opulence and its ghetto, where full-sized items are repurposed to accommodate the masses.

But there are some noticeable logic flaws. And for a movie that is so progressive in its attitudes toward climate change and social issues, much of the humor in the second half of the film involves laughing at the fractured syntax of Tran’s broken English.

That aside, the relationship between Paul and Tran gives the film a heart to go along with its satiric edge and provides a satisfying conclusion to a movie with a meandering middle.

Payne has been one of my favorite filmmakers since 1996’s “Citizen Ruth,” and that film and “Election” are two of the great movie satires of the last 25 years. In his latest effort, there is no shortage of interesting parts, but the overall enjoyment is … well, downsized.

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