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By Sarah Ward
March 13, 2020
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Downhill

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell can't save this flat American remake of 2014 Swedish hit 'Force Majeure'.
By Sarah Ward
March 13, 2020
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"Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films." They're the wise words of cinema's current king, aka multi-Oscar-winning Parasite filmmaker Bong Joon-ho, who made the above comment to a room full of Hollywood heavyweights at this year's Golden Globes. It's just a statement of fact — and while you could say that the folks behind Downhill have taken his advice, they've really just followed a frustrating trend. Remaking Swedish movie Force Majeure, they've read the subtitles, then decided that the world desperately needs an English-language version of Ruben Ostlund's (The Square) exceptional 2014 Cannes award-winner.

This isn't the first time a great movie in a language other than English has received the remake treatment. And, as the likes of 12 Monkeys, Insomnia, The Departed, Let Me In and Gloria Bell have demonstrated, such a path doesn't always end badly. But Downhill is such a broad and simplistic adaptation of a savage and stunningly complex film that it only seems to be motivated by three factors. The first: money, cashing in on Force Majeure's modest success. The second: teaming up Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. The third: taking a great concept and dumbing it down for the widest possible audience. Who needs a sharp, smart exploration of festering marital troubles and engrained gender roles — in Swedish, no less — when you can plonk a fighting, holidaying couple in a cross-cultural comedy? That appears to be writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's (The Way, Way Back) favoured approach.

The setup: on vacation in the Alps, the Stauntons have skiing and bonding firmly on their minds. Then, over what should be an uneventful lunch, a controlled avalanche completely changes their getaway's vibe. Snow rolls towards the chalet where Pete (Ferrell), Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and their kids (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) are discussing their soup options, and it doesn't seem to be stopping. Billie throws her arms around her sons, but Pete grabs his phone, jumps up and bolts. When the incident is over — leaving everyone shaken, frosty but unharmed — Pete's family can't quite look at him the same way, especially when he claims loudly and angrily that he didn't abandon his nearest and dearest in the face of a possible disaster.

As the movie's title makes plain, things do go downhill. It was a risky move, giving this film that particular name, because the whole feature proves a definite slide from the original, too. Instead of subtlety and even ambiguity — and instead of cleverly and amusingly pondering humanity's inherent fight-or-flight response, today's multifaceted readings of masculinity and the passive aggression that lingers in all relationships — Downhill keeps everything as overt and obvious as possible. Cue ample bickering, absolutely no room for intricacy or doubt, and scene after scene devoid of either tension or laughs.

When younger couple Zach (Zach Woods) and Rosie (Zoe Chao) arrive, for example — as secretly invited by Pete — they're supposed to reflect the audience's discomfort at watching a marriage potentially implode. Instead, the scene just plays like a bad sitcom outtake. As actors, Faxon (Ben and Kate, Married, Friends from College) and Rash (Community's Dean Pelton) have experience in the genre; however there's nothing funny about Downhill's stilted feel. In another altercation, when Billie and Pete report their experience to the resort's security team, a scene that's supposed to ripple with awkwardness and unease just seems pointless. Actually, it does have a purpose: giving a brief snippet of screen time to Game of Thrones favourite Kristofer Hivju, who actually had a sizeable role in Force Majeure and is clearly the only actor Downhill deems worthy of returning.

The less said about Miranda Otto's stereotype-baiting, forcefully accented performance as an over-sexed hotel manager, the better. It's the type of character that should've disappeared from screens decades ago, although it does typify much about Downhill. At every turn, this remake strips out its source material's depth and richness in favour of the easiest, most cartoonish option — and for viewers who haven't seen Force Majeure, another superficial and formulaic flick about an unhappy marriage and Americans marvelling at cultural differences overseas is hardly high on anyone's must-watch list.

You wouldn't guess that Succession and Peep Show creator Jesse Armstrong helped pen the script, or that Louis-Dreyfus is one of Downhill's producers. In the latter's defence, she does rank among the film's highlights. While Billie is tasked with navigating scenarios that manage to be both derivative and over-the-top — losing her cool before a helicopter ride and getting steamy with a hot Italian ski instructor — there's always weight to Louis-Dreyfus' performance. The same can't be said of Ferrell, who seems to be stuck in Daddy's Home mode, but Faxon and Rash have lucked upon the perfect distraction technique. By virtue of the movie's snowy, picturesque setting, whenever anything falls flat, they just relish the scenery. In a film that's constantly on a downward trajectory, that happens often.

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