Desperate times call for desperate movies, and underneath the labored picaresque comedy of “Downsizing” is full-on panic about the handbasket that is Earth and the hell into which we may be heading. Considering the prospect of potential environmental collapse, director Alexander Payne and his co-writer Jim Taylor channel the old Steve Martin routine and decide to get small, the better to address big themes and long journeys. Is it any surprise that the resulting movie feels stretched out of shape?
Payne and Taylor have collaborated on some fine films (“Election,” “About Schmidt,” “Sideways”), but this is the first time they’ve tried their hand at allegory. The central concept is strong, if bizarre: In the near future, Norwegian scientists discover a method of miniaturization that will allow humans to take up a fraction of their carbon footprint, leading to a wave of volunteers and a growth industry — you should pardon the term — of teeny-tiny condo villages, cities, and services for the newly Lilliputian.
Gulliver and Jonathan Swift are much on the filmmakers’ minds, it seems, as “Downsizing” becomes a soft-focus satire on the human condition. Matt Damon plays Paul, a physical therapist and average-American nice guy who decides to downsize with his wife (Kristen Wiig) but who, for various reasons, ends up going it alone. His travels across a rolling scrim of human classes and types — decadent richies, the immigrant poor, doomsday cultists, and pragmatic carpetbaggers — are meant to be a representative pilgrim’s progress, and, on a scene by scene basis, the movie stings, if gently.
It says a lot that this brave new world is a miniature mirror of a flawed larger society, with just as much bureaucracy, mendacity, and inequity. Paul initially finds a job as a customer call center drone and steps timidly into the dating pool; because the character is a passive schmo, though, “Downsizing” has to surround him with more vibrant situations and characters.
Chief among these are Paul’s neighbor Dusan, a charmingly amoral black marketeer and party monster who could only be played by Christoph Waltz, and Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a peppery Vietnamese refugee who works as Dusan’s cleaning lady and whom Paul decides to help, with unintended long-range consequences.
Chau (“Treme,” “Big Little Lies”) gives a strong, committed performance in a problematic role. Ngoc Lan speaks in a high-pitched sing-song that may strike some audiences as caricatured and even close to yellowface but that the actress, herself the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, has defended in interviews. In the playing, the character is alternately moving and a dramatic device by which a bland white hero can salvage his soul; that, and she’s saddled with the movie’s cringiest speech, in which Ngoc Lan lists the eight different ways Americans, uh, have sex with each other and angrily asks Paul which one they just had.
“Downsizing” has moments of real wit and tart sentiment, as might be expected from the director of “Nebraska.” It’s especially strong in the scenes with Waltz, the Euro-film survivor Udo Kier hovering dissolutely in the background, and at its most acid cataloguing the lives of the have-nots in a cruel wee world. But the film’s ultimate message — help other people, basically — is, while useful and necessary, dramatically rather slack, and you notice with a shock that the film’s central conceit has almost entirely dropped off the table by the final third. Payne’s microcosm is so like our macrocosm that after a while he simply forgets to make the distinction.
Directed by Alexander Payne. Written by Payne and Jim Taylor. Starring Matt Damon, Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, suburbs. 135 minutes. R (language including sexual references, graphic nudity, drug use)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.