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How to get bigger by getting smaller

Alexander Payne's "Downsizing" is a tour-de-force.

Everyone pretty much knows that coming in, i.e. when you sit in a moviehouse where a whole alternative society has been created for humans five inches tall, you jolly well know you're going to see amazing things. And so you do.

Especially when you see the two human worlds co-existing side by side: the mini-world and the full-size world of the rest of us who are heedlessly consuming so many of the world's resources.

Overpopulation and depleting resources are the reasons that  Norwegian scientists invented their human-shrinking technique in the first place. It's the ultimate way to decrease all our gruesome human damage to our environment--minimize our drain on resources and we give our species another chance.

People rush to do it. But bandaging a wounded world isn't the main reason, wealth is. In a shrunken world, the wealth you bring with you has exploded. You're allowed to own so much more--and to be worth so much more. A personal fortune of $152,000 translates to $12.5 million for the rest of your life among the mini-people.

Meanwhile, you're only consuming .364 per cent of the personal volume you once did. Such are the advantages of shrinking yourself to five inches.

How could middle-class people resist it? They can't. So there they are, a couple played by Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig, egged on into downsizing by an old friend played by Jason Sudeikis, who has made the great leap into a fraction of himself.

OK, the human attraction to miniatures is primal. Have you ever watched small children--so unavoidably aware of their size differences from us adults--when they encounter tiny dollhouse versions of the world? They're entranced.

So is the audience for "Downsizing"--especially with the juicy satire on human acquisitiveness that goes with it.

In Payne's world, we're coddled into thinking evil has been banished. If your first thought was that such size differentials would allow those larger to use their size to crush the Downsized and take all their worldly wealth and goods, guess again. Somehow this noble world seems to continue to flow from a desire to cure over-population, not to plunder.

A small hitch develops with our couple, though. At the last second, the occupational therapist's wife decides "uh-uh, not for me. I'm staying big." I won't tell you the exact moment that did it, but it's gloriously in keeping with the terrific satiric world that Payne and his writing partner Jim Taylor previously invented in "Sideways" and "Election."

Those are the visual wonders you absorb gleefully in the first half of "Downsizing." And then something truly remarkable happens in this movie halfway through. It remembers the existence of poverty and suffering and injustice in the world.

Our hero, the occupational therapist (Matt Damon) - now alone among decadent friends (led by Christoph Waltz) - is drawn into the life and neighborhood of a Vietnamese heroine (Hong Chau) who was shrunk as punishment for political dissidence. He discovers that some of his old earthly occupational abilities can now be employed to alleviate great suffering.

"Downsizing" plays a beautiful, wildly unexpected moviehouse game of bait-and-switch on its audience. It has promised you one kind of movie and, for a while, gives it to you. And then it says, "we've got something else in mind" which deepens the experience greatly.

Your soul has grown comfortable for a while by being downsized by an artful gem. What you ultimately wind up with is movie that asks a smart question about how large our souls are--five inches tall or large beyond all imagining.


Three and a half stars (out of four)

Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Kristen Wiig, and Jason Sudeikis in Alexander Payne's tale of a future world where people can shrink themselves for the sake of both the environment and increased wealth. 135 minutes. Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual references.

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