Reel Opinions


Saturday, February 15, 2020

Downhill

If you have seen 2014's devilish black comedy from Sweden, Force Majeure, then there is not really a reason to see the new Hollywood remake, Downhill.  Sure, this new film gives us some fine performances from Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but the whole thing has been watered down to an almost American sitcom level.  It's not offensive or bad in any way, but it's also not very memorable.  It simply feels limp, when you know that the two stars in front of the camera, as well as the directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (they wrote The Descendants), are capable of so much more than this.

If you haven't seen the earlier movie that this is inspired by, you probably won't get what the big deal is, or why the original is so lauded.  All the better reason to stay home and track down the other film, I'd say.  There's just an air of emptiness here.  It's trying to tell an emotional story, and you can see how it can be one.  That's why the 2014 film worked so well.  It fully embraced its premise in ways that this one does not.  Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play married couple Pete and Billie, respectively.  They've brought their two young boys (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) along on an Austrian ski vacation that is supposed to bring about a lot of family bonding, though it's clear from the outset that things between the couple are hanging by a thread.  Pete barely seems there for his family, choosing to constantly check his phone for messages from a co-worker.  Billie also has to wonder why her husband chose to stay at a luxury resort that does not really cater to, or have any activities for the kids to do, other than stay in their room and watch movies on their tablet most of the day.

On the second day of their vacation, as the family sits on an outdoor terrace to enjoy lunch, an incident occurs when a controlled avalanche that does not look like it's very well-controlled suddenly barrels down toward them.  Billie protects her frightened children, while Pete grabs his phone, and makes a run for it, leaving everyone else behind.  When the snow clears and everyone is unharmed, Pete comes casually walking back, acting like nothing happened.  But Billie has been shaken by it, not just physically (her hands shake uncontrollably as she puts them over her mouth to catch her breath), but also emotionally over how her husband just up and left them behind.  What if it had been a real avalanche, and not a controlled one created by the resort?  The two don't speak about the incident for a while, but when it finally does all come out while they are entertaining two of Pete's friends, Billie cannot hold back her disgust over his actions.

One of the best scenes in Downhill is the one where Billie finally opens up and lets her husband have a piece of her mind.  Not only is it some of the best acting that I've seen Julia Louis-Dreyfus give, but it matches the bite and the passion of the source material.  One of the key mistakes this remake makes I think is in the casting of Ferrell as the husband, and it's not because he's bad here, or has no chemistry with his co-star.  It's that he plays the character kind of soft.  He's more or less coming across as the lovable doofus that he's played in so many films.  This is the wrong approach, as the character comes across as kind of a wimp.  When he goes out and gets drunk out of anger, it comes across like one of his goofier performances.  We don't sense the anger that we're supposed to from the scene, or from the performance.  Ferrell is simply too likable here, and plays it too safe.

However, I have a hunch that this is what the filmmakers were going for.  They wanted to lighten the material, and not make it quite so heavy as it was before.  This creates a conflicting tone.  This is supposed to be a movie about a couple who face some hard truths about each other, and it never quite builds to the level of anger that we want it to.  Even those who have never seen the earlier film will sense a kind of deflated air here.  It doesn't exactly feel lifeless, as like I said, the lead actors are giving it their all here.  It just feels like they're being held back.  There are moments here where the movie comes to life, but then it will go back to the safe and somewhat bland approach.  It also doesn't help that the movie is only 85 minutes, and feels like it ends when it should be continuing to build steam.

Downhill is not unwatchable, and there are a couple laughs, but it really can't help but feel like a pale shadow in comparison to the much bolder vision of the original.  That film was filled with passion and really made you feel something.  This, despite everything, feels like a tiny little spat that never amounts to much, and leaves you wondering if the couple at the center of it all had much life in their relationship to start with.

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