Alexander Payne is one of the best directors working today. His stories share a consistent theme in which broken men are forced to reassess their lives. Payne has basically cornered the market on tales of men on the brink of midlife crises. He’s proven that that theme is tireless, witness to such memorable works as About Schmidt, Sideways, The Descendants and Nebraska, all Academy Award nominated films.

Payne, though, must’ve sensed he was tapping an empty keg, so he and longtime co-writer Jim Taylor added a new wrinkle to Downsizing, Payne's latest. In addition to highlighting a man (Matt Damon) who’s having trouble finding success, Payne has incorporated an environmental theme to this satire. Those are tough topics to balance, so Payne has a steep hill to climb.

Part of Downsizing’s appeal, besides the possible star appeal of Damon, is its concept. Norwegian scientists have discovered a way to shrink humans down to a mere five inches tall. Living as a smaller species allows humans to produce less waste – a controlled experiment in the film showed that a miniaturized group of about 30 willing individuals produced enough waste in five years to fill just one standard trash bag. Living like Ant-Man, or maybe like the kids in Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, is interesting, and opens the door to something Payne hasn’t explored – sci-fi. Downsizing isn’t a straight sci-fi film but there are sci-fi tropes which the Omaha, Nebraska native would have to explore.

This new way of living is not the standard, but with America being America the idea of “downsizing” becomes commercialized. Downsizing is offered as a path to a richer life – a family on a modest income can opt to shrink and become millionaires in the process. It capitalizes on the idea things are less expensive when you’re smaller, thus your dollar is stretched much further. This appeals to Paul Safranek (Damon), a married occupational therapist who wants to buy that perfect home and provide the perfect life for his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig). Lamenting what could’ve been (Paul gave up med school in order to take care of his sick mother), downsizing is an opportunity for Paul to fix his personal and financial troubles. Downsizing comes with it one huge caveat – the process is irreversible, but seeing the opportunity as greener pastures Paul and Audrey take the plunge. As is customary, Paul’s problems become greater as he becomes smaller and, without other miraculous scientific procedures to fall back on, he must work through his issues to find himself again.

It’s easy to see the messages Payne is trying to convey. He wants his audience to be cognizant of our ecosystem and to understand our effect on it. With a running time of 135 minutes, Payne made it a point to bookend his latest with the idea that Earth isn’t as strong as it used to be and we need to make efforts to save it and our civilization. Using an “aw shucks” guy like Paul, though, looks like the unraveling of that message. Paul is lost - befuddled, really, and it’s tough for audiences to identify with him. Overall, he’s a good guy, but he constantly confuses material wealth for happiness, and it’s his downfall at every major crossroads in his life. Paul comes to a few of those crossroads during this particular journey, but he’s boring, and audiences don’t respond to boring.

Downsizing's biggest highlight is Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese dissident. She comes off as stereotypical early on (which may be a problematic enough to alienate viewers). As things progress, we get to know her - Ngoc is strong, smart, funny and brave. Chau plays her effortlessly and she is the catalyst who gives Paul purpose. She is the one character who best represents Payne’s themes, and thanks to Hong Chau she has a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actress nomination to show for it.

Outside of her performance (and maybe Christoph Waltz’s turn as a shady European businessman), this is Payne’s clearest misfire. In the past he’s won over cinephiles because his characters are largely accessible, but there are almost none here. Payne’s films aren’t box office blockbusters, but presenting a serious eco-message within a dry comedy-drama is a tough sell and is too bold for him to handle. Because of that Downsizing doesn’t know what it wants to be. Its romantic angle is funny and light, but the environmental message wasn’t weighty enough to resonate. Ultimately Downsizing is mostly boring fare that goes nowhere, sadly, just like Paul.

2 stars out of 5

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