'Downsizing' film review: The stupidest 'smart' film of the year
Ideas alone do not equate to great stories. The high-concept drama/comedy/science fiction flick "Downsizing" (opening in theaters nationwide Dec. 22) is a hollow slog following a non-dimensional nobody propped up by a meager peppering of intriguing conceits.
In short: Struggling middle class couple Paul and Audrey (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) decide to shrink themselves to just a few centimeters in height to live in a miniature society where their modest finances will let them live like royalty. Hong Chau, Christoph Waltz and Jason Sudeikis also star.
An alarming majority of the first act is wasted on tediously explaining and watching the downsizing process. But this belies a critical flaw of "Downsizing" - it emphasizes world building while doing the absolute minimal to create or flesh out its characters. To that point, the movie lurches gracelessly through time - sometimes months at a time, one time a decade at a time - to just lazily drop a plot point and move on.
Great science fiction uses high-concept elements as storytelling tools to develop characters and enhance a story's thesis. "Downsizing" mishandles its science fiction conventions utterly. This clunker just drops a non-character of a protagonist into a fantastical world ... and lets him aimlessly wander around in it. The script hints at tantalizing, socio-economic implications of pressing near-future issues -- but it artlessly uses an 'aww shucks' protagonist to bumble around this world.
At one point, a secondary character tells the protagonist "I don't know you Paul, but I like you." This reveals the film's general laziness regarding Paul - a character the audience doesn't know much about but is expected to like nonetheless. More calories were burned in developing the fantastical conceit of "Downsizing" than in developing any character depth at all. The film arrogantly believes a barely defined protagonist is just enough to navigate and touch upon the world's utterly absurd science fiction premise. The film offers little in the way of character arch and virtually nothing in terms of story arch - "Downsizing" can unironically be summarized as 'One time a tragically ordinary, undeveloped man shrunk himself - and met some people.'
At one point Paul desperately asks "Who am I"? Welp, that's actually a frustratingly difficult question to answer. Aside from the fact that the protagonist's name is Paul, the film does not reveal much about his surface details or his internal motivations. Paul's only character motivations for any of his actions seem to be: he wants to stretch his dollar and he wants to get out of running errands. This lack of character dimension makes Paul's choices - as few as they are - confusing. It barely explains his initial interesting in shrinking down. It certainly doesn't explain his third-act revelation. And it makes his ultimate decision just seem arbitrary.
The third act is astonishingly baffling. Its sole purpose is to drag the main characters from their comfortable colony and take them to a colony far away. To accomplish this, the story concocts a ridiculously lazy plot contrivance - which essentially boils down to: Paul leaves the colony to get out of doing chores. So, once again, to shove the film from one idea to another idea, "Downsizing" opts for ham-handed narrative connective tissue rather than anything resembling thoughtful character decisions.
As the third act approaches its climax, two characters have a heart to heart. One character tries to understand the other character - possibly to prevent the protagonist from making a patently absurd choice. "Downsizing" is packed with fleeting, vaguely thought-provoking notions and its screenplay was crafted by the writers of the acutely sharp "Election" and the touching "About Schmidt." So it is incredibly disappointing to see a critical, emotional confrontational between main characters be reduced to a silly conversation about types of intercourse. Yep, a pivotal third act moment hinges upon an immature and broad conversation about sex.
Any film with admittedly thoughtful musings that is rooted in a fundamentally flawed narrative structure should not be mistaken as good or even acceptable storytelling. "Downsizing" is less of a thought-provoking story as much as it a clunky vehicle for the filmmaker to artlessly espouse some half-baked ramblings regarding the concerns humanity will have to address today and in the future. The tragedy of "Downsizing" is the wasted opportunity to thoughtfully examine these apprehensions - and use actual storytelling, where characters and their choices matter, to press the urgency of these issues.
Final verdict: At one point the protagonist admits his journey is "a boring story." He is right - except that he also forgot to mention how unfunny and anti-dramatic this purported comedic-drama ends up being. It's easily the stupidest "smart" film of 2017.
"Downsizing" opens in theaters nationwide Dec. 22. This sci-fi drama has a running time of 135 minutes and is rated R for language including sexual references, some graphic nudity and drug use.