Matt Damon stars in Alexander Payne’s latest, a movie that can’t settle on what it wants to be about

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Little people. Big ideas. Massive misfire.

Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing” is one of the year’s biggest head-scratchers. The misanthropic director behind “Election” and “Sideways” tells a story about human beings shrinking down to five inches in size in an effort to save the planet: Less waste, less space, etc.

But that’s just the beginning. “Downsizing” takes sharp turns in its narrative, like an improv exercise where the story is being made up as it goes along, until it’s not a story of tiny people at all, but the tale of a pushover finally learning to stand up for himself and what he wants. And that man just happens to be 5-inches tall.

Matt Damon plays Paul Safranek, who is intrigued when Norwegian scientists discover a method to shrink humans down to the size of a first generation iPhone. Along with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig), he volunteers for the process, and they decide to move to a colony customized for tiny people, where their $150,000 equates to $2.5 million. They’re small, yes, but they’re rich!

This concept is intriguing, but apparently not enough for a full movie, so Payne (along with co-writer Jim Taylor) doglegs the story by introducing Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a one-legged refugee from Vietnam. She brings Paul into her world, and “Downsizing” becomes a movie about class structure (the poor, ethnic people live outside of a giant wall, no subtlety there), until Payne doglegs again and turns it into an environmental message movie about the survival of the species, and Safranek’s place in it.

“Downsizing” has an incredible, ambitious look — when studios only finance superhero movies and big budget tent pole films, we’re going to miss the days of risky, idea-driven adult comedies like this — but it’s too restless to find itself and what it’s really trying to say. Call it an admirable failure whose head is too big for its body.

agraham@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2284

@grahamorama

‘Downsizing’

GRADE: C-

Rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use

Running time:

135 minutes

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