It’s very redundant and very common to be sour when Hollywood remakes exceptional international films. In the case of “Downhill”, an American remake of the 2014 outstanding Swedish hit film written and directed by Ruben Ostlund will leave fans of “Force Majeure” very disappointed and sour, but it’s also left to be expected. However, if you go in without any preconceived notions, and not familiar with the original film, “Downhill” may be an engaging and ambitious dark comedy that offers bleak hilarity, along with sharp commentary on a doomed marriage that features some impressive acting by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell.
While “Downhill” isn’t as subversive as Oslund’s; it’s more interested in making a statement about marriage and male cowardice than materialism and repressed alpha-male rage that was explored in the original. But what it is doing in its grimly comical ways is that we can’t always control the disasters that await us. The result is a film that feels far less of a provocation than the original, and sadly it comes off far more of a pale imitation of the satiric original.
The concept and plot of “Downhill” is very similar to the original, Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) go on a family vacation to the Swiss Alps. Pete is still mourning over the death of his father, and he constantly feels belittled by Billie has she is always pressuring him on some level. During a lunch at the resort, an avalanche comes shuddering down the mountain. Billie safeguards the children, while Pete quickly grabs his phone and runs off abandoning his family. This is a moment where Billie realizes that Pete is so self-absorbed that he would rather protect himself than his family during a moment of an impending catastrophe. As expected, Billie is left shaken and bewildered that Pete would do this. Her incredulity asserts into greater resentment and anger that spirals the material into some bleak and wickedly funny humor.
Writer-directors Jim Rash and Nat Nixon (The Way Way Back, 2013) along with co-writer Jesse Armstrong, utilize the themes of male cowardice, trauma and mid-life crises. The film also shortchanges the original by a good 30 mins. What makes “Downhill” an interesting viewing is the casting decisions and interpretations by Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell. In the original, the wife was much younger, who used some sincere monologues about motherhood that came off very sincere and poignant. Here the material feels even bleaker thanks to Louis-Dreyfus stark and blunt sensibilities she already holds in her demeanor.
Although we never quite never feel Billie’s geographical dislocation and isolation in her marriage because the children in the film are replaced with all knowing teenagers, in which in the original the characters’ were much younger. This allowed the wife character in “Force Majeure ”to be far more vulnerable. The film becomes more about the exchanges between Ferrell’s Pete, who’s always on the defense as Louis-Dreyfus’s Billie is left more combative. After an explosive argument, Pete and Billie take a couple of days apart for some soul-searching. Can Pete make amends for his huge misstep as father and protector?
Directors Rash and Faxon avoid the eerie mood and visual techniques of Ostlund’s conceptual artistry that brought an off-kilter and unease off-symmetrical framing that brought an ominous atmosphere to the film of the family’s French Alps hotel. On a technical and visual level, Ostlund’s film is the far more accomplished and better crafted picture. However, to Rash and Faxon’s credit, it would be very challenging to replicate Ostlund’s visual sensibilities. There is still an unpredictable rigor and sardonic spirit that Rash and Faxon still capture on a serviceable level with the material.
The film strengths rely on the duo of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, they are terrific together in this film as they are never terrific towards one another. Louis-Dreyfus is very fussy in her role here, and the highlight in the film is her slapstick humor, especially in a hilarious sequence where she almost hits it off well with a ski instructor. All around Faxon and Rash scramble with the material, they fail to make a cohesive message about human behavior and repression. The ending is mildly amusing, but it fails to stay true to the Swedish films far greater complexities and ambiguities. “Downhill” becomes more of an unnecessary effort that still manages to be watchable. It may misfire on many levels, but it already had quite an uphill battle measuring up to the original.