Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Written by Jesse Armstrong and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
In 2014, a film called Force Majeure came out and hardly anyone outside the critics circles saw it. It was a small foreign film from Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund. I had the chance to see this film and it was startlingly effective as a comedy and drama that masterfully blurred the line between the two. Now in 2020, we get an American remake, which at first blush might seem like a face-palm-worthy decision by the film industry, but it comes from directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose debut feature The Way Way Back showed them capable comedy/drama filmmakers. And on top of that, Downhill features Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the lead roles.
Downhill has a simple, yet effective story. Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Peter (Ferrell) decide to take an Alpine vacation with their two children. While enjoying lunch on an outdoor patio, a controlled avalanche amazes the restaurant guests, until that amazement turns to dread as the avalanche appears to be rushing out of control right at them. Peter rushes off for indoor cover, making sure to nab his phone on his way, leaving his wife and children to hunker down at the table. When the avalanche subsides as a startling false alarm, Peter returns, but with his wife and kids looking at him in a completely different way. Now Peter and Billie must endure this event the rest of the trip, which includes an unexpected visit from Peter’s co-worker (Zach Woods) and a rather horny hotel concierge (Miranda Otto).
A film like this, one which so masterfully crafted the mix of domestic drama and comedy, can be very difficult to replicate. So difficult, I was a little surprised to see they were trying it. But the great strength of the film is its leads, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. They are both perfectly cast in these roles, Louis-Dreyfus especially. Coming off a successful run with the television series Veep, she transitions back to the screen effortlessly, giving a great performance. She really embodies that balance of emotion from scene to scene. Loving mother, concerned wife, frightened by both the avalanche and Peter’s reaction to it. She is someone in flux in her life, evaluating her relationship with Peter, and Louis-Dreyfus nails all of those emotions. Ferrell, meanwhile, is effective in the disconnected role of Peter. There isn’t a lot asked of Ferrell, but it manages to play to his strenghts.
I don’t want to spend this review comparing this to the original, I’d much rather evaluate Downhill on its own, but what this film lacks is the mastery of tone displayed by Ruben Ostlund in Force Majeure. The film is funny. The film is dramatic. But it fails to be consistently both, and what made the original so startling was its ability to be both funny and dramatic at the same time. That balance of tone was incredible. But when, from scene to scene, Downhill is either a comedic scene or a dramatic scene, that message of flux and true internal struggle between the two characters of Billie and Peter doesn’t quite come across as successfully as I’d like. As a result, the ending of the film, the resolution, does not pay off like it ought to. It falls somewhat flat after an otherwise enjoyable, if slightly underwhelming experience.
When it comes down to it, Downhill is fine, as far as cinematic experiences go. But knowing how great Force Majeure is, I would be hard pressed to recommend seeing this film, knowing that a far superior rendition of this tale exists in the world today. And hey! A foreign language film just won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, so asking someone to read subtitles shouldn’t be nearly as hard as it used to be, right!? I will say that Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ performance is by far the best thing about this film and likely enough of a draw for any fans to check this out. She is really great! It’s just the rest of the movie that is sort of just okay. And just okay, is not okay. Or something.