‘Downhill’ (2020) | Movie Review

Having just emerged from awards season, I am reminded of one of the many head-scratching omissions from the Academy back in 2014 when Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure was not included in the Best Foreign Language Film (now Best International Feature) category. Östlund’s breakout film wonderfully explored familial duty and masculine expectations to hilarious and cringe-inducing effect. Over five years after seeing it for the first time, moments from the film still flood into my brain and make me laugh and feel awful simultaneously. As with every successful film not in English (though there actually is quite a bit of English in Force Majeure), an American remake was bound to happen.

Surprisingly, this remake was spearheaded by producer and star Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has not made a film since Nicole Holofcener’s masterpiece Enough Said back in 2013. Due to having all of the money in the world, Louis-Dreyfus has the ability to really just do whatever her artistic heart feels compelled to do, and typically, she has pretty great taste. Bringing on Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who won Oscars for cowriting The Descendants, also felt like a somewhat interesting choice. At the time, I was really taken with their directorial debut The Way Way Back, but upon a recent rewatch, that enjoyment diminished greatly, coming off as overly saccharine and sentimental. Those two words are basically the exact opposite of Force Majeure.

They transfer far too much of them over to Downhill, a not terrible yet totally superfluous retread of this story. The beats here are basically the same. Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell play parents of two sons (changed from the son and daughter of the original) on a ski vacation in the Alps. While having lunch one day, a controlled avalanche (which they do not know is controlled) heads towards them, and Ferrell’s father figure grabs his phone and flees the scene, leaving his wife and kids behind to what they think is their death. Bodily they are perfectly fine, but mentally, all four of them are sent into a frenzy of how they can possibly deal with the notion that one of them would leave the others to die.

Firstly, the style of humor here feels totally at odds with the content of the story. The jokes are very broad, even cartoonish at points, such as Louis-Dreyfus’ Billie trying to masturbate in a public restroom with many layers of winter clothing on or the entire character of Charlotte (played by Miranda Otto) that exists solely to say crude things with a thick accent. I laughed at a number of the jokes here, don’t get me wrong. Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are two of the most skilled comedic performers of the last thirty years and know how to land a laugh. The issue lies with making everything hollow. Jokes force themselves on the characters rather than being born from their situation.

Because of the lighter tone in the comedy, the drama does not pack as hard a punch as it needs to either. Rash and Faxon rely on super obvious visual metaphors, like the couple sharing the same sink before the incident and using different ones afterwards, and the different sinks aren’t even a traditional his-and-her setup but a mirrored wall that sinks are on both sides of. Do you get it? There’s been a separation. Downhill‘s running time is thirty minutes shorter than the original, and for the deterioration of the family to set in, you really need that extra time. Even talented people like Zoë Chao and Zach Woods in the supporting cast, who would be ideal people to bounce off ideas and thematics against, don’t get their due because there’s just barely any time for them.

Downhill enters the storied history of American remakes of non-English language films never truly making a case for why they needed to be made. In an effort to make it more palatable, they have stripped Force Majeure of what made it special. I actually wish the film was worse than it is, making me angry four truly souring a great film. Instead, for 86 minutes I watched a totally inoffensive, down the middle piece of work. Good for a few laughs and a duo of committed performances, but ultimately, never distinguishes itself. I guess the only logical place to go was downhill.

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