There is no smarter director of wry and human comedy than Alexander Payne, whose filmography includes gems like Election, Nebraska,  About Schmidt and Oscar-winning scripts like Sideways and The Descendants. As I say in my video review above, his latest, Downsizing, fits right in but also might be his most ambitious movie yet — certainly it is technically.

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In the vein of such great cinematic satirists as Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges, Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor have come up with a gem of a premise that had me at hello. It basically asks the question: If you could miniaturize yourself to 5 inches tall in return for an economically easy life of luxury, and help the world’s overpopulation and climate problems at the same time, would you do it? Payne takes the premise to ingenious levels but also to surprising places that add an element of seriousness to the proceedings while still staying aware that this is being played for thinking man’s laughs.

At the beginning of the film, a Norwegian doctor (Rolf Lassgard) announces a stunning medical breakthrough that allows human beings to be miniaturized to 5 inches, a big plus in the fight against the world’s population explosion. It is something sweeping the world with many people signing on, but it is all voluntary, not government-mandated. This essentially creates a separate group of humans versus the rest of us. The temptations are real in a world where it is hard to maintain a standard of living.

Matt Damon plays Paul  Safranek, an Everyman in the vein of something Jack Lemmon or Jimmy Stewart might have played in an earlier era. An old high school classmate (Jason Sudeikis) turns up at their high school reunion with his wife, now touting the benefits of the procedure — both 5 inches tall and living in a dream suburban development called Leisureland. Money problems are all the stuff of yesterday, and fine living is what those who make the transition are in for. Paul and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to go for it and submit themselves to the process, which takes place in a sterile white-walled factory where downsized humans are turned out on an assembly line. It is slyly and wittily conceived, and these scenes provide some of the movie’s biggest laughs without ever being condescending or going for the obvious jokes (well, maybe the giant Saltine cracker gag was just too much to resist).

Without going into spoiler territory, I will say that Paul’s plan goes a little awry and that leads to life changes neither he — nor the audience — could ever have anticipated. Eventually he hooks up with aging European playboys Dusan and Joris, played hilariously by Christoph Waltz and Udo Kier. These cigar-smoking  party boys are loving the life of the downsized but also ironically hold a key to Paul’s fate, as does a Vietnamese refugee named Ngoc who sports a prosthetic leg below the knee (Hong Chau plays this one-of-a kind character in a way you will not forget, stealing every scene she’s in). Hong joins Paul in Norway, where nothing less that the fate of the planet is in  peril. Is this suddenly a comedy about the apocalypse? You think you know exactly where this movie is going when suddenly it takes a poignant left turn.

Payne has cast this film perfectly with Damon an ideal fit as Paul, and Wiig nicely underplaying her comic predicament. Waltz shows a real knack for comic timing, as does Hong Chau who has already won Golden Globe and SAG nominations for the role. Sudeikis is amusing in his brief moments, while Neil Patrick Harris also turns up as the guy selling the delights of Leisureworld much like a carnival barker might. Lassgard, so great in last year’s Swedish Foreign Language Oscar nominee A Man Called Ove, has some nice moments as the Norwegian doctor who stuns the world. There should also be special shout-outs to the superb visual effects work, production design by Stefania Cella, and a whimsical score from Rolfe Kent. Producers are Mark Johnson, Jim Burke, Megan Ellison, Payne and Taylor. Paramount releases it Friday.

Payne does it again bringing the planet a very small comedy with big ideas that matter.

Do you plan to see Downsizing? Let us know what you think.