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Comedy meets satire: ‘Downsizing’ gives shrinking humans a new storyline

“I’ll be home, sitting with my friends, and somebody will say, ‘Heeeey, let’s get small.’ You know, we get small, and the only bad thing is if some TALL people come over.” – Steve Martin, “Let’s Get Small,” circa 1977.

When humans are shrunk in the movies, there’s usually the expectation, or at least the hope, of returning to full size at the end of the adventure.

In “Fantastic Voyage” (1966), a submarine crew is shrunk all the way down to microscopic size so they can be injected into a prominent scientist’s bloodstream and attempt to repair the damage to his brain.

In “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” (1989), a scientist accidentally shrinks three kids to the size of insects.

And in “Sack Lunch” (1996), which opened the same weekend as “The English Patient,” an entire family fits into a paper bag and …

Oh wait. “Sack Lunch” wasn’t a real movie; it was a “Seinfeld” universe movie.

Now comes “Downsizing” and, this time, the process is voluntary and irreversible, and viewed as the last best hope to save the planet.

Here’s the intriguing and absurd premise cooked up by director Alexander Payne (“Sideways,” “Election”) and his writing partner Jim Taylor. With the planet only 200 years or so from certain extinction due to the myriad problems caused by overpopulation, a team of Norwegian scientists has perfected a process that can shrink humans to just 5 inches tall. It just might save us all!

Think about it. If the world’s population is gradually downsized and relocated to domed, climate-controlled communities, we’d be leaving a MUCH smaller footprint. (The communities would have to be domed because the giant-sized birds and insects would be swooping down, picking off the tiny people left and right.)

When we join “Downsizing,” approximately 3 percent of the world’s population has gone small and loves it.

One couple about to make the transition: the Safraneks, Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristen Wiig), a typical American couple stuck in an early middle-aged rut, with no hope of realizing their dreams. If they go small, they can enjoy an idyllic, luxurious, carefree life.

Albuquerque native Neil Patrick Harris appears in a scene from “Downsizing.” (Courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Through the use of some terrific special effects and humorous explanation, we’re taken through the process of miniaturization. We learn all hair must be removed because it does not shrink, and all fillings must be taken out because they won’t shrink either, so your head would literally explode.

When Paul wakes up small, he learns there’s a bit of a complication. At the last minute, his wife backed out. Good luck, Paul!

After Paul adjusts to his new life as a very small, very lonely man, “Downsizing” turns into a hybrid of raucous comedy and social commentary satire. Paul becomes party pals with his filthy rich, hedonistic neighbor Dusan (Christoph Waltz), and strikes up a friendship that could turn into something more with Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident shrunk against her will.

For a while, “Downsizing” seems to lose its way, especially in an extended sequence in Norway, where Paul and Ngoc Lan and Dusan meet the scientist who invented the shrinking technique and the original community of shrunken people (who have been small for more than a decade now). They’re a cult-like group, convinced the end is upon us, and they’ve built an elaborate and relatively massive underground community designed to be the home base for human life for at least the next 200 years.Paul must decide if he’ll save himself, or if he’ll take his chances and join Ngoc Lan, who has dedicated her small life to helping the poor, the sick and the elderly. By that point, “Downsizing” feels as if we’re being lectured a bit too much. Damon is in prime everyman mode as Paul. Waltz has a blast playing the party king Dusan, who has some wise observations about the ways of this new world. And Hong Chau is brilliant as Ngoc Lan.

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