By: Jessica Goddard
From directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back), Downhill is an English-language remake of Ruben Östlund’s European awards contender Force Majeure (2014). Having not seen the original, I can only speak to the quality of the new film – starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell – as a standalone film. And, it’s not bad! Truly, it’s not bad. It’s a little simple and unpolished, and uncertain of what it wants to be, but it’s not bad at all.
Despite what its star power suggests, Downhill is a rather grim film exploring a lot of grim themes relating to midlife, marriage, and family. It’s less of a slick black comedy, as it probably intends to be, and more of a just-plain-sad comedy.
A well-off American family – husband Pete (Ferrell), wife Billie (Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons – are on a ski vacation in the Austrian Alps when a “controlled avalanche” at their resort tumbles in the direction of their restaurant deck, showing no sign of slowing down. In the moment of truth, Pete panics, grabs his cellphone off the table and flees for the restaurant’s interior, in theory leaving Billie and their children to be buried alive. Of course, the menacing cloud of powder heading their way was nothing more than scary wisps of snow dust, and everyone is A-OK. Pete re-emerges to his traumatized family, hoping the act of cowardice will go unscrutinised if it doesn’t get discussed, and everyone will quickly forget and move on. It becomes clear, however, that Billie is not willing to let that be the case.
After all, what did happen? Was Pete swept up in a thoughtless reflex of survival instinct? Or, did his response reflect a subconscious apathy toward the wellbeing of his family? Funny stuff, I know.
It’s not obvious why Ferrell was the choice for this role, since his typical wacky high energy doesn’t really apply in a movie that derives most of its humour from dry discomfort. Louis-Dreyfus is more at home in her part, but again most of the film involves a tense and strained marital dynamic, which doesn’t see either lead playing to their strengths.
Still, Downhill has its moments of insight, even though they might have been packaged better under different writers (Oscar winners Faxon and Rash, along with Academy Award nominee Jesse Armstrong co-wrote). The title is sadly not the only painfully on-the-nose metaphor we encounter. Many of the secondary characters are just insipid stereotypes that could’ve been funny if they weren’t so tired.
I can appreciate what this movie was trying to do. The results, while bumpy, are watchable. Again, it’s not bad, but it’s certainly a bummer for a comedy, and doesn’t represent anyone working at their peak.
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Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod