Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus star in Downhill


Dept. of Missteps and Ill-Conceptions


This doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. Just as the world applauds Bong Joon-ho’s appeal to the moviegoing masses to look past the one inch barrier that are subtitles, comes this completely unnecessary American remake of 2014’s superb Force Majeure.

The European original, a sharp musing on family and modern manhood, was sardonic and dark, with most of its dramatic tension and excruciating comedy stemming from director Ruben Östlund’s detached and deliberate framing of his characters and their imperfections. Downhill doesn’t even pull off its opening gambit, let alone the moments of quiet discomfort that should drive the rest of the movie.

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Downhill.

Both movies begin the same way. A painfully middle-class white family is on a ski-trip when a controlled avalanche goes seemingly out of control. The four of them are having lunch overlooking a glorious snowy vista when they are abruptly and rather frighteningly immersed in a tidal wave of snow. While the incident leaves them physically unscathed, the psychological trauma inflicted on the family is immeasurable. A trauma made worse by the fact that the dad (Tomas in the original and Pete in this remake), either because of a wonky fight or flight response or a tragic character flaw, deserts his family and runs away in an attempt to save himself.

In Östlund’s original, the incident plays out in an astonishing four-minute single shot. Where the transition from majesty and awe to sheer panic and horror is wonderfully written and perfectly framed. The screen is blanketed in white and it takes one whole minute before we begin to see the first silhouettes of life. The tension is real. Tomas’ behaviour is nauseating. And even before another word is spoken, we can already feel the dramatic consequences of that unexpected avalanche.

The very same moment in Downhill just comes across like a pale imitation. As though Nat Faxon and Jim Rash got a friend to watch the original and then summarise the scene for them in 50 words or less.

The problem with Downhill is that it has no idea what it wants to be. It isn’t really dramatic. It’s not quite a comedy – neither black nor otherwise. It’s missing any kind of genuine pathos. But worst of all, is that it fails to exploit the unyielding vastness of its environment. There was a delicious bite in how Force Majeure mirrors the forbidding, solitary, and sometimes sinister ski slopes with the breakdown of a marriage. Here, there is only scenery.

And then there’s Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, otherwise extraordinary comic actors, who are burdened here with the most uninspired material. Sadly for Will Ferrell, there is a certain anticipation when it comes to seeing him on screen. You know what I’m talking about: that slow descent into madness, the building anxiety that eventually gives way into some kind of outrageous outburst. It is an audience expectation that could have been, and should have been, used and subverted in so many clever ways. It wasn’t. And the resulting performance by Ferrell is a confused one, where he seems uncertain as to the genre of film he’s in.

Will Ferrell and Zach Woods in Downhill.

The idea of transplanting an “all-American family” – and everything that entails – into this nightmare isn’t a bad one. If written correctly – by burrowing into the baggage of American life and into their naturally puritanical nature, by examining the unrealistic expectations placed upon men by their society, by contrasting that with their European counterparts – we could have had something truly great.

Needless to say I expected more from Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Having written – and won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay – for Alexander Payne’s The Descendants, it would seem that they understood the mechanics behind the kind of sardonic humour that stems from marital hell. We see none of that cleverness here. We can barely hear their voices.

Where Force Majeure was a deeply emotional and deeply uncomfortable dissection into marital misery, male inadequacy, and parental failings, Downhill is just a miserable, inadequate, failure.

86 minutes
Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Writers: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, and Jesse Armstrong
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoë Chao, Zach Woods, Kristofer Hivju, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford, and Giulio Berruti

Downhill is screening exclusively at GSC.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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