As one who was nearly euphoric about that ten-minute clip from Alexander Payne‘s Downsizing that I saw five months ago at Cinemacon, it breaks my heart and drains my soul to report that this portion of Payne’s film is far and away the most engaging, and that the rest of it is…well, certainly original and fascinating and intriguing as far as it goes. But the film as a whole doesn’t score on a jackpot level.

Downsizing (Paramount, 12.22) came into Telluride like Leo the lion, fed by those high aggregate review scores out of the Venice Film Festival and those highly admiring reviews from Todd McCarthy and Owen Gleiberman, but things quickly turned quiet and gulpy after yesterday’s 2 pm screening at the Chuck Jones theatre. 

Right now I would call Downsizing a respected lamb that no one I’ve spoken to, and I mean no one, is truly over-the-moon about. Except for Todd McCarthy, I mean.  1:05 pm update:  An older woman I just spoke to in line called it “embarrassing.”  That’s too harsh!  What it does is under-deliver.

Everyone knows the boilerplate. A futuristic setting and a dazzling, astonishing scientific discovery from Norwegian scientists that allows humans to reduce themselves to five inches tall. In so doing small volunteers live much more luxuriously and lavishly (their financial holdings are worth much more) while hundreds of thousands if not millions of carbon footprints are sharply reduced, and a far healthier environment results. Or so it seems at first.

The story is about shlumpy physical therapist Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) and his shallow wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) deciding to get small and live lavishly inside a downsized tiny town. A controlled environment inside a plastic dome, safe from birds and cats and other predators.

The truth is that Downsizing starts off like a house on fire (loving it! yes! so great! Christoph Waltz is a hoot!) and then it starts to droop around the 40-minute mark, and then it really droops and sags when the movie moves to Norway. (No, I’m not going to explain what means, just that the film goes there during the final act. Read the McCarthy and Gleiberman reviews if you want specifics.)

I wanted a whipsmart social satire mixed with a sci-fi adventure about the exotic thrill of suddenly (and somewhat depressingly) being five inches tall and all that would entail, but what I got after the first act ended was a somewhat mopey, down-spirited love story between Damon and a spirited, peg-legged, often-hard-to-understand Vietnamese woman (Hong Chau) living in hand-to-mouth fashion and coping with total methane ruination of the planet.

I didn’t want a “love fuck” or a “pity fuck” (lines from the actual film) — I wanted a satirically funny excitement fuck, and that wasn’t what Payne was into when he wrote and directed.

I am not, however, “panning” Downsizing. It’s definitely a major, highly original, award-season release that everyone will have to see. It will be a huge topic of conversation during the late fall and holiday period. I am in no way saying “don’t see this” or “wait for streaming” or anything along those lines. 

Downsizing is smartly written, well acted, conceptually daring and dynamic and certainly an awesome technical achievement. It starts out as a kind of grandly visionary Preston Sturges-level social satire, then it downshifts into an occasionally amusing but sad-sacky relationship film, and then it turns soft and sappy and drearily humanistic in the final act. I never said to myself “I’m not admiring this” or “this is boring” — it’s definitely a first-rate film, and I’m very glad that Payne finally got it made — but I couldn’t get high off it. I tried but it wouldn’t let me.

I don’t mean to self-parody, but one of the reasons I felt somewhat deflated about Downsizing is that Damon looks like a bloated manatee in this thing. This is a somewhat typical HE complaint, I realize, and I take no pleasure in endless refrains. Call me shallow but if Damon looked a bit trimmer in this thing, I would like Downsizing that much more. Especially when his head and eyebrows are shaved…good God!

My first reaction to Downsizing was that it’s a portrait of mass man as mass insignificance — a story about frustrated, middle-class people buying into a scheme that’s intended to make their lives better or certainly richer, but in fact only makes them smaller. I still feel this way. Who in the real world would want to reduce their physical size? Don’t people already feel miniaturized in so many ways? A diminishment of size is a metaphor for what people have been feeling since the industrial revolution. It’s what led to Communism.

I don’t think Joe Popcorn is going to like this film all that much. It paints a very grim portrait of where we’re heading socially and atmospherically. It’s a quietly mundane, matter-of-fact nightmare thing. It leaves you with a feeling of “shit…well, I guess it’s nice that Fat Damon and Hong Chau realize they really love each other but what kind of a future can they hope for?”

Honestly? I wanted a little Incredible Shrinking Man action. I wanted to see Tiny Damon dropped into a normal-sized human realm and get chased around by house cats and get pecked at and maybe carried off by birds. Payne totally ignores this. If I’d been his producer I would have said, “I know I sound like Samuel G. Arkoff but you’ve gotta do the cat and bird chase-arounds…you have to. It’ll make the movie that much catchier for the lowbrows.”

I was scolding myself all through yesterday afternoon’s Telluride Film Festival screening. I felt intrigued and appreciative but never truly engaged or aroused, and I was telling myself “this is your fault…get with the program! You’re watching a visionary Alexander Payne film, and this is exactly the kind of film that you live for. Open your heart, sit up and pay closer attention. Stop sitting there in a funk…get the lead out!”