A film review by Craig J. Koban April 21, 2020

DOWNHILL jj

2020, R, 85 mins.

Will Ferrell as Pete  /  Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie  /  Miranda Otto as Charlotte  /  Giulio Berruti as Guglielmo  /  Zach Woods as Zach  /  Zoe Chao as Rosie

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, based on the film written by Ruben Ístlund

DOWNHILL is one of those films that's more forgettable and unnecessary than truly awful.  It's a work that has some genuine talent in front of and behind the camera (proven stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louise-Dreyfus and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar winning screenwriters of THE DESCENDENTS and the filmmakers behind the sensational and underrated coming of age dramedy THE WAY, WAY BACK).  But considering the team assembled here, DOWNHILL is disappointingly dull and unfunny, not to mention that, yes, it is indeed a vastly inferior remake of the 2014 Swedish dark comedy original in FORCE MAJEURE.  Both films deal with a family ski vacation gone horribly afoul, but only one of them sinks its teeth into the underlining complexities of the material.   

Predictably, it's not DOWNHILL. 

Ferrell stars as Pete, who's desperate to give his family the best vacation possible at a posh Austrian ski resort.  His wife is Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and their two kids are Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford), with the latter parties not really being "into" their ski trip as much as the parents.  Nevertheless, they all try to make a go of it with each other's company and the spectacular mountain vistas around them.  However, you sense low key tension early on within this family group, which comes to a massive head one day while they're all about to order breakfast at their luxurious hotel.  While enjoying the deck views of the Alps that surround them, panic soon strikes them when a rampaging avalanche (set off by local controlled explosions) comes careening towards the hotel and the patio.  Billie screams for her life and grabs her sons, holding onto them for dear life.  The hapless and rather spineless Pete selfishly grabs his smart phone and runs away from the avalanche and his petrified family like a screaming school boy.   

Thankfully, everyone is physically safe in the aftermath, but mentally Billie and her kids are a mess.  Pete insensitively comes back to the table and proceeds to scope out the menu to prepare his breakfast order as if nothing dire has happened.  This, for obvious reasons, pisses off the already traumatized Billie to no end.  She just can't begin to comprehend (a) how Pete favored the safety of himself and his phone over his family and (b) how he seems utterly incapable of understanding how wrong his actions were.  Thus begins a slow simmering battle of wits between the married couple, which really comes out during evening drinks with their friends Zack and Rosie (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao).  Billie is having issues tempering her anger towards her husband's deplorable actions, whereas Pete goes very deep into denial mode, which leads to both of them temporarily going their separate ways during their vacation to process their respective feelings. 

 

 

Even though this is clearly rehashed material from its far better antecedent, DOWNHILL nevertheless contains an intriguing premise in terms of examining how a husband and wife make decidedly different choices when dealt up a dangerous scenario and how they both try to deal with the thorny aftermath of said event.  Even though the avalanche in question didn't harm anyone at all, it's Pete's monumentally cowardly actions in response to it that's the main thrust of this narrative, which further navigates Billie's feelings of complete abandonment by him.  The notion of Billie seeing the love of her life turn into a loathsomely spineless weakling in the span of seconds fuels her anger and sense of family humiliation.  Obviously, the Swedish original tackled the same core premise, but with did so with a more macabre sense of humor and a much more delicate and focused sense of introspection.  By direct comparisons, DOWNHILL feels like a confused sitcom that's trying to figure out what tonal balance to strike here. 

And therein lies many of the issues with DOWNHILL, which tries for nervous, cringe worthy laughs out of contrived situations as opposed to really cutting into the convoluted psychological layers of that made this once happy marriage implode in an instance.  Now, that's not to say that Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are not well paired here.  Plus, they both have an established career history of being more than capable of tapping into roles for both laughs and heartache.  I actually found Ferrell to be more refreshingly low key here while trying to tone down his usual histrionic comic impulses, but Louis-Dreyfus is the real attraction in DOWNHILL.  Her character is afforded the closest thing to a tangible and relatable arc here, and she does an exemplary job of conveying a woman being dealt with the sudden blow that her husband is an uncaring loser capable of rash judgments.  She plays understated shock and shameful awe rather well here, but it's all kind of too bad when Faxon and Rash don't really give the actors solid dramatic or comedic material to work within. 

For the most part, the filmmakers appear creatively reticent and confused as to what tonal range their aiming for with DOWNHILL.  Their writing is simply not sharp enough to allow for the scathing black comedy to shine through, nor do they pepper the script with enough thoughtfulness to elicit any dramatic payoffs that pack any emotional weight.  You do gain a sense, though, of how this married unit tries as they do to maintain their collective composure and deliver a memorable vacation for their listless and disinterested children in the midst of a winter wonderland (any parent can relate to this), and some of these scenes have a biting honesty to them.  But then Faxon and Rash litter the film with distracting side characters and subplots, like one involving the hyper sexualized resort owner (played amusingly by Miranda Otto), who's good for a few laughs here and there, but seems like she was transported in from a whole other different type of European farce altogether.  Another side character that doesn't quite lead to the film's unevenness is a hunky ski instructor (Giulo Berruti) that makes passive aggressive advances at the vulnerable Billie, and Billie's handling of him provides DOWNHILL with one of its very few intriguing character building moments.  Plus, Louis-Dreyfus plays the moment with a grounded veracity that shuns the overall film's schizophrenic nature. 

DOWNHILL needed more scenes like this to make for a satisfying whole.  On top of that, I felt that there was a real missed opportunity to take advantage of Ferrell's thanklessly broad skill set and let him credibly inhabit a funny, yet pathetic and weak character (look at films like EVERYTHING MUST GO and STRANGER THAN FICTION if you're not convinced of his decent performance range).  In DOWNHILL Ferrell is just playing yet another in a longstanding list of the same kind of woeful man child creations (granted, less broadly this time), which ultimately holds the film back (it also becomes harder to buy into any redemptive change of heart Pete tries to go on later in the proceedings).  DOWNHILL was not as terrible of a remake as I was expecting going in based on the somewhat falsely advertised trailers (which don't truthfully hint at the type of film it actually is).  On a superficial level, DOWNHILL also looks surprisingly good, with more than a few sumptuous shots that do a solid job of capturing the picturesque nature of the endless wonders and beauty of the Austrian scenery.  Again, there's some competent craft in this production, and I like and appreciate the people involved here, but DOWNHILL kind of fails as a worthwhile remake that pays faithful respect with what came before while innovatively forging its own path.  When all is said and done, it squanders its talent...and our time.  It's a bunny hill remake, if there ever was one. 

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