DOWNHILL

Reviewed by GREG KING

Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash

Stars: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zach Woods, Zoe Chao, Julian Grey, Aamon Jacob Ford, Kristofer Hivju, Giulio Berruti.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in Downhill (2020)

This largely unnecessary US remake of Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s uncomfortable, chilly and dark 2014 comedy Force Majeure adds little to the original. The film has been written and directed by Oscar winners Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who seem to specialise in films about flawed and problem father figures – the pair wrote The Descendants for Alexander Payne and directed the superb 2013 comedy The Way Way Back. While the main plot follows the template of Ostlund’s film, the more subtle European nuances seem to have been lost in translation.

An American couple and their two teenaged sons arrive at a resort hotel in the Austrian Alps for a skiing holiday. But there is already some tension between Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, from Veep and Seinfeld, etc, who is also one of the producers of the film). Pete is still grieving over the death of his father, leaving Billie to basically take charge of running the family. There is also a hint of some unresolved issues with Pete’s father, but this is never really explored in any depth. The two boys would prefer to play on their electronic devices than go skiing. Pete is also distracted by constantly replying to texts on his mobile phone, texts sent by Zach (Zach Woods), a work colleague who is also holidaying nearby with his hashtag obsessed girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao).

On the second day of their holiday the family is enjoying lunch at an outdoor eatery when a controlled avalanche races towards the restaurant. Pete immediately grabs his phone and flees, leaving Billie and the boys to be covered in a thin film of snow. Although they were never in any real danger Billie is angered and resentful of Pete’s actions. She tries to get Pete to own up to his act of cowardice and self-preservation, and this eventually casts a pall over the rest of the holiday. A coldness and distance develops between the two that will take a long time to thaw, if ever. Even Zach and Rosie, who stop by for a brief visit, get caught up in the tension between the couple.

Downhill is more heavy-handed in its approach and lacks the moral ambiguity, edginess and insight of the original. Faxon and Rash and co-writer Jesse Armstrong (the tv series Succession, etc) have explored themes of family dysfunction, masculinity, and grief. They have changed the ending of the film into something a bit more bland and seems like a compromise. The film is tonally uneven with an uncomfortable mix between the dramatic and the comedic. Even though it runs for a brisk 86 minutes the film still seems overly long, and many attempts at humour seem forced and fall flat. There are a few missteps along the way, such as the scene in which Billie has a brief sexual hook up with a handsome ski instructor (Giulio Berruti) that wasn’t in the original.

There is also little chemistry between Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell, who share the screen for the first time in their respective careers. Louis-Dreyfus is actually quite good here, and brings plenty of emotion, repressed anger and snark to her performance. Usually cast as the immature manchild, Ferrell seems miscast and uncomfortable here in a more dramatic role. This is a more silent, restrained and muted performance than usual. Miranda Otto steals her few scenes with an outrageously over the top performance as Charlotte, the gregarious, flirtatious and sexually liberated guest relations director for the hotel. Her performance lacks subtlety and is at times a little grating. Kristofer Hivju, who appeared in Ostlund’s film, has a cameo here as the man responsible for operating the controlled avalanches.

The film has been nicely shot on location in Austria by cinematographer Danny Cohen (The Danish Girl, etc), giving the material an attractive visual surface.

Along with the recent The Upside, the dire American remake of the wonderful 2011 French comedy The Intouchables, Downhill is yet another example of why Hollywood should not attempt to remake European films – they nearly always get it wrong. Audiences would be better off tracking down Ostlund’s original Force Majeure.

★★

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