The world is not getting any bigger and the population is not getting any smaller. In the latest from Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants) science has found an answer to this problem: If you can’t grow the planet you need to shrink the people. By reducing humans to just a few inches tall you can pack an entire city into a space the size of a football pitch and massively reduce their impact on the environment. The one thing you can’t shrink, it becomes clear, is their problems.
The centre of the movie is Paul (Matt Damon). Paul is about as normal as you get. He is married to a nice woman (Kristen Wiig), has a decent job, a few friends and a roof above his head. He is getting by but there’s no sign of his life ever becoming anything more than…fine. By making the decision to shrink, Paul finds he is suddenly a wealthy man. When you’re about the size of a mouse, a mansion costs a few hundred pounds and your monthly grocery shop is about the cost of a pint of beer.
Payne deserves significant credit for aiming to make his tiny-people comedy into something more than a broad, silly Honey, I Shrunk The Grown-Ups. There would be nothing wrong with that, of course, but for a good hour or so Payne makes both excellent sight gags and interesting comment on consumerist society. He shows how, despite being sold as a solution to environmental damage, the real appeal in shrinking is that people can have more. The smaller you are the bigger your fortune.
Disappointingly, if perhaps fittingly, this is a film of diminishing returns, becoming less fun and less fascinating as it goes on. When Paul meets Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan (Hong Chau, doing excellent work in a role sometimes alarmingly stereotyped) he heads down a path of enlightenment, but it’s a path that takes a lot of story shortcuts and veers dramatically from the tone of the far better first half. It winds up as a film that seems unsure what it wants to be, the message it lumps for landing with too tiny a thud.