In Downsizing, Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play a couple that buy into this scheme for similar reasons. Damon plays Paul Safranek, an occupational therapist who maybe could have been more, and Wiig is his wife Audrey, who spends her time shopping for larger homes that neither can afford. And yet, their decision to go small seems to be for the other: Paul tells Audrey that he wants her to have everything she ever wanted; Audrey tells her friends that she's going along with Paul's crazy scheme.
And this half-baked decision-making is unfortunately a theme for Payne's Downsizing. The idea and the gimmicky consequences of the scientific discovery would play out better as a comedy sketch rather than a film that Payne stretched out. From its opening act, the story keeps meandering off to different directions, never quite finding its footing. Paul similarly doesn't find his place, likely because his character is about as shapeless as a clod of clay. In the same vein, Payne continually brings in new themes and satirical swipes that only make it abundantly clear that there is no cohesion in this mess of a plot.
There is a sterile tone to Payne's work here. Like a model Barbie dollhouse, there is a separation from all of the characters and the set, whether normal-sized, or in the "Leisure Land" of the miniature people. Some of this is intentional, with real estate that's like the cookie cutter condos springing up to meet the demand of a population boom. But some of it keeps us at a distance from the very characters we're meant to sympathize with.
The story receives a much-needed propulsive kick when Hong Chau, playing Ngoc Lan, appears on the scene. But although she is easily the best part of the whole film, her character is a bludgeon at times -- forcing narrative, forcing sympathy for Damon's character, and forcing laughs. There's a casual racism here that is sure to feel dated in a few years, like that SNL sketch about the Japanese version of The Office.
Kudos to Chau for humanizing this movie even through all of that. And although you can see why the initial themes would be enough to reel in actor Damon, there is little here to connect to its audience. Other than a few sight gags, like an oversized Saltine cracker, we often forget what the premise of the movie is. There are swaths of scenes that don't need to be in the movie, and Payne should have used that time better to formulate what he wanted to say with Downsizing. Maybe physical shortness has no consequence on what we can do for the world, but surely shortness of vision does.