DownhillReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/14/20 10:37:27
How one feels about “Downhill” will depend to a large degree on whether or not they have seen “Force Majeure,” the celebrated 2014 comedy/drama from Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund that it is based on. Granted, this is not the most startling observation to make about a remake, especially of a film of a relatively recent vintage, but in this particular case, there is a slight difference. Those who have not yet seen that original film are likely to dismiss it as just an odd and ultimately missed opportunity that contains a couple of good ideas and a couple of good performances but doesn’t have any clear idea of what it wants to do with them. Those who have seen the original, and who have therefore seen just how effective this particular material can be when in the right hands, are more like to be straight-up outraged with how thoroughly the writer/director team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have botched things up here in just about every possible way by transforming a wry, subtle and penetrating dark comedy about a seemingly ideal family unit whose hidden fissures are inadvertently exposed for all to see into a bigger, dumber and more crashingly obvious work that is notable only by its resounding pointlessness.As the film opens, married American couple Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) have arrived with their two young sons for a ski vacation in the Alps. The beginning of their holiday is a bit rough—they have inexplicably chosen a resort that caters to a more adult clientele and has virtually no activities aimed at children—but they seem willing to make the best of it. After a morning of skiing, they sit down to have lunch at a restaurant on a deck overlooking the admittedly spectacular mountain view. The resort is using explosives to do controlled avalanches and one of them sends a torrent of seemingly out-of-control snow down the mountain that appears to be heading straight for the deck. Assuming the worst, Billie instinctively covers the kids in a desperate attempt to protect them from what looks like sure death. Pete, on the other hand, reacts slightly differently. When the snow appears to be crashing down, he grabs his cell phone and runs off to safety. Then, when the whole thing turns out to be a false alarm, he casually comes back and sits down as if nothing happened.
Billie is outraged at Peter, though not so much because he ran away as she is because of his refusal to acknowledge what happened or the way that he instinctively put his own self-preservation over the safety of his wife and children. Ironically, even Pete himself realizes deep down that he screwed up but he cannot bring himself to admit it because to do so would be to admit to his essential selfishness. Instead, he tries to deflect things by saddening booking a wildly expensive surprise helicopter skiing expedition that does not go well, becoming wildly overprotective of the kids and by continually trying to downplay what happened into something of no real importance. After impulsively inviting a younger work friend (Zach Woods) and his new girlfriend (Zoe Chao) over for the evening, Pete once again tries to suggest that it was nothing and Billie finally explodes in a spectacularly cringe-worthy manner. The next day, Pete and Bille split for separate excursions—he takes the kids to a more family-friendly resort while she takes a ski lesson from a hunky instructor—while contemplating how that controlled explosion and subsequent pseudo-avalanche has uncovered problems that were always there but which, like Pete with the avalanche, they simply never bothered to acknowledge.
Considering just how perfectly conceived and executed “Force Majeure” was, the only hope that anyone foolish enough to attempt to remake it might have into coming up with something worthy of comparison would be if they figured out a new approach to the concept that would give it a different spin, though hopefully one that was equally provocative. For example, why not flip things around and have Billie be the one who runs off and then has to deal with the ramifications of violating society’s rigid rules regarding motherhood? That could have led to some any number of potentially funny and discomfiting moments and in Louis-Dreyfus, the film certainly had an actress who could navigate the potential pitfalls of such an approach and score both comedically and dramatically. Instead, Faxon and Dash have elected to more or less follow the same parameters of the original film but have instead elected to make everything broader and more obvious throughout.
Instead of relying on subtlety and nuance as Ostlund did to get his points about family ties, shame and self-absorption, this film pretty much spells everything so that no one in the audience can possibly miss the point of any given scene. As a result, there is a faint whiff of condescension throughout the proceedings that begins to overwhelm everything else and makes the relatively brisk proceedings (the film clocks in at about 88 minutes) seem endless. As for the scenes that do deviate from the original, they have the unenviable task of trying to fit into a narrative that already demonstrated that they were not needed and fail. Take the ending, for example. Without getting into spoilers, the original film had a conclusion that was equal points funny and thought-provoking and visually spectacular to boot—it was about as satisfying an ending as one could possibly hope for. This time around, that conclusion has been jettisoned but what is in its place feels like an afterthought and not much of one at that.
The sad thing about “Downhill” is that it does contain just enough things in its favor to make you think that it might actually come together at some point. For example, the casting of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell is inspired—she is a genius at conveying barely concealed irritation that eventually erupts in unexpected ways and he is equally good at playing characters vainly trying to bluster through their failings and inadequacies. Both of them have good moments here and there and the big centerpiece scene, in which everything comes to the surface while the unexpected guests look on with a combination of horror and strange fascination, is probably the most effective moment on display. Unfortunately, such moments are few and far between and the two are too often left with characters and situations that have been rendered too broadly and simplistically to really work.And yet, even taken strictly on its own terms and somehow leaving the existence of the original out of the equation, “Downhill” just never quite clicks. It has ideas about marriage and family but reduces them to their broadest and most basic elements and then practically grabs viewers by the lapels in an effort to ensure that no one misses the underlying point of any given scene. It is only at its very very best that it even begins to approach “Force Majeure” and those moments are few and far between. The best thing to say about it is that it is so completely forgettable that it will quickly be erased from the collective moviegoing memory. At least they had the good taste to change the title to avoid future confusion because while “Force Majeure” is clearly “Force Majeure,” this remake is all “Downhill.”
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