Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) lives with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), in small town Iowa, and works as an occupational therapist. They're both struggling financially, so he seizes the opportunity to escape their financial woes by undergoing a revolutionary procedure called "downsizing" that shrinks him to 5 inches tall. Audrey opts out of downsizing at the last minute. He moves to a new community for the downsized where he befriends the smarmy Dusan Mirkovic (Christoph Waltz) and befriends a cleaning lady, Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau).
The screenplay by writer/director Alexander Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor begins with a witty, clever, and imaginative first act, but gradually meanders while squandering its intriguing, inspired concept. There's a scene involving Hassidic Jews and also a sex joke that are both laugh-out-loud funny; the rest of the attempts at humor fall flat or are merely amusing. Blink and you'll miss Margo Martindale in yet another cameo performance in a lackluster film---why can't anyone cast her for more than a minute or two? Paul's wife is pretty much thrown into the sidelines and forgotten about once Paul goes off into the world of the downsized. Also, it makes no sense in terms of scale that the mountains that Paul sees don't look much bigger when he's 5" tall.
The film's momentum officially takes a steep nosedive once Paul meets Dusan and Ngoc. Paul is the film least interesting character and it's no help that the screenwriters fail to get the audience inside his head. There are plenty of ideas and even some social commentaries on the surface, but the filmmakers don't take the risks of exploring them profoundly or bitingly enough. Downsizing never comes even close to becoming the consistently brilliant, bizarre and provocative Being John Malkovich. Perhaps Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jones would've made this film would've been more wildly entertaining, clever, and imaginative. It's not important where you takes ideas from, but more important where you take ideas to. Unfortunately, Downsizing bites off much more than it could chew.
Bravo to Alexander Payne and the casting director for finding newcomer Hong Chau because she's the only saving grace during the film's dull 2nd half. She gives a radiant, breakthrough performance that will put her on the map and get her cast in, hopefully, better films. Her character is the most interesting one onscreen; she's the film's heart and soul which grounds it in much-needed humanism ever so slightly. If only she were the protagonist instead of Paul, this would've been a much more emotionally engaging film. At a bloated running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes, Downsizing is a toothless, lackluster, and underwhelming satire that's less than the sum of its parts. It's a great idea, poorly executed.