Alexander Payne's seventh feature, Downsizing, takes place in a world where technology exists to shrink human beings down to about five inches tall. This technology was invented to ease the burden of overpopulation on the planet's resources, but in practice, most people who go through the downsizing procedure do so because their money is worth dozens of times more when they only have to buy small amounts of little things. There, was that tricky to follow? Not tricky to believe, but tricky to understand what the movie wants you to believe. I don't think so. "Get shrunk and buy shit" - that's pretty digestible.

Well, Downsizing disagrees, which is why we get a distended first act of exposition that first explains how this was invented and why, alludes to how it works, and then goes through a long bout of watching an Omaha, Nebraska couple, Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey Safranek (Kristen Wiig) learn more about the procedure, learn how the miniaturised communities work, and decided whether or not to go through with it. It takes... I don't know how long. It takes a while. Now, I know that "let's compare these two entirely unrelated films!" is a bad game, even if it is a fun game, but anyway, think of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, another  ultra-high concept sci-fi narrative that mostly works as a character-driven indie-style movie: that film gets "company which erases all your bad memories" read into the record almost as quickly as it took me to type out this sentence.

The bloated, overly explanatory opening of Downsizing is annoying as shit, but I bring it up for a bigger reason (as though "the movie made me its enemy right from the start" isn't reason enough). It's symptomatic of the greatest single problem with the screenplay, written by Payne and his former writing partner Jim Taylor many years ago (it was to have been their follow-up to 2004's Sideways), which is that it has way too much ground to cover, and doesn't know how to cover it. So you have things like e.g. an opening that spends an exhausting amount of time carefully outlining its ideas and teasing out the sociological impact of the technology it presents, when "it's magic. Poof, you're small" would work just as well, given that it spends no time at all applying the same realistic examination to the things it sketches out later on in the story. I'd go so far as to say that the second half of Downsizing could only happen in a "poof, it's magic" scenario, so all that time spent laying out the film as science fiction, when it is destined to become fantasy, is deleterious to the movie, as well as being a bit pacey.

Downsizing isn't based on a book, but it feels like it has been adapted from one, poorly. Like, imagine there's some way to put science fiction in a 1000-page 19th Century novel about the whole of a world, like Middlemarch or Les Misérables, the kind where the plot goes through every imaginable incarnation of its society, and spends pages and pages quietly detailing how even the slightest aspects of those societies work. Now imagine that book has been condensed into a 135-minute film, inaptly. That's how Downsizing feels to me, grabbing at concepts, social messages, psychological arcs, metaphors, ruminations on the state of science, and just cramming 'em all right the fuck in there, ruthlessly slicing out whatever isn't necessary to make it all fit, and in the process accidentally slicing out stuff that was still pretty important.

The plot contains... but I just finished saying, I can't tell you what the plot contains. It contains three whole different plots, for a start, and you can almost see the way that they were supposed to build on each other, but the first one cuts off just when it's getting started, the second one makes frankly no sense, and the third one is actually fine, but it needed some kind of goodwill from the first two for me to give a shit. Anyway, Paul gets shrunk, but Audrey chickens out, leaving him single and alone in the Arizona mini-community of Leisureland, where his bargain-basement dollhouse McMansion laughs at him. A year later, he's downsized (ha-ha) to a small apartment, and let Audrey have everything in the divorce, working in a Land's End call center to make ends meet. Why? Not for any plot reason. Apparently it's so Payne and Taylor can make a point about call centers. Though the very existence of low-status white-collar jobs in Leisureland is totally at odds with everything we've learned up to this point about how things work. Regardless, Paul now has a lust-for-life Eurotrash upstairs neighbor, Dušan (Christoph Waltz), who invites him to a party; the day after, hungover and asleep under Dušan's table, Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a Vietnamese dissident who was miniaturised by her government as punishment, and was the sole survivor of an escape attempt to the U.S. Through her, Paul learns of the existence of a whole population of impoverished small people, living in terrible housing just on the outskirts of Lesiureland. This is only the second plot, by the way, I'm going to leave the third alone as it is a spoiler. Suffice it to say, it's the only one the film bothers resolving.

There are a lot of things here, but here's one of the biggest: this makes no sense. Want a cautiously worked-out universe with the rules set out in the opening 30 minutes? Then you can't have the community of the mini-immiserated. But alas! your social satire requires demonstrating that technocratic fixes for environmental problems based in maintaining the consumer culture of late capitalism will invariably re-create the broken social hierarchy of the pre-fix world.* And for that, you need to chuck the rules out the window. So which is it, sci-fi or fantasy? Downsizing tries to have it both ways, and ends up making both halves of the equation totally dull.

Not to mention, the number of things that Paul needs to go through in the course of the film make it all but impossible for him to make sense as a character, though the final scenes do give the illusion of there having been a steady character arc all along. Dušan and Lan Tran aren't going to help us out there: they're both two different varieties of wacky cartoon characters (Waltz, unsurprisingly, leans into this; Chau successfully pushes back and deepens the part, though not nearly enough to be justify the awards buzz she's been generating). Still, I well credit Downsizing with this much: the cast is game and committed, and their performances are generally fun and quirky without tipping movie all the way into "comedy". And it is jammed full of cameos from wonderful character actors, and a bigger-than-a-cameo role for an unexpectedly restrained, thoughtful Udo Kier.

Plus, the film has a solid visual aesthetic. The production design is just subtly "off", creating spaces that aren't quite to scale with the people living in them, making Damon seem smaller than he should without it quite being possible to point to a particular place where that happens. And I don't really know what Payne and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael were doing with the camera - low heights and slightly wide lens choices are my best guesses - but something about the compositions makes it always easy to keep in mind that we're in a tiny world of tiny people, a mere dot on the map in Arizona someplace. And this is true even without the occasional oversized props. The film's evocation of soulless suburbia isn't groundbreaking - and it provides for a jarring amount of obvious product placement (Leisureland has three Cheesecake Factories, you know) - but it works.

So, despite it all, I kind of do want to root for the movie. It places fairly enjoyable people in a fairly enjoyable world, and that's a big part of the battle. It's just that it then does absolutely nothing with any of them, except spit out a whole fuckload of themes, narrative ideas, and social critiques, and then explore absolutely none of them successfully. Movies full of capital-I Ideas are good, of course, but sometimes movies that bungle all of those Ideas are more vexatious than movies that are just honestly dumb, and Downsizing is virtually nothing but two and a quarter hours of straight bungling.

*I'm all for this argument, by the way, but Downsizing does a crap job of arguing it.