When it was announced in 2018 that the critically adored Swedish comedy Force Majeure would be remade by Fox, the overwhelming response from anyone who had seen the original was one of quizzical exhaustion. Why just four years after it won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes do we need to see a more “palatable” English-speaking remix? And is this still where we’re at as an industry and a culture that an arguably perfect film needs to be retouched just because it’s afflicted with subtitles?
There was also something strangely dated about the news, the sort of quickie remake that seems to mercifully happen less these days, a slowing trend that’s the result of a string of flops as well as a wider embrace and respect of international cinema. But what kept Downhill on many a radar regardless was an undeniably impressive roster of talent. Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (making a rare big-screen appearance) would play the leads. Peep Show and Succession’s Jesse Armstrong would co-write the script. And, most importantly, the film would have the blessing of the original’s writer-director Ruben Östlund. Might there be a reason for retelling this story in a different language that’s bigger than “just because”?
The story of both films hinges on a devastating moment of panic and the emotional wreckage it then leaves. Pete (Ferrell) and Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) have taken their sons on a family ski trip to the Alps, mistakenly at a location that’s more suited to those wishing to party than parent. During a lunch outside one day, a controlled avalanche nearby thrusts a cloud of snow their way and fearing the worst, Pete grabs his phone and leaves his family. He returns to find them safe but his kneejerk reaction creates a rapidly expanding crack in his relationship.
What remains potent from original to remake is the unease of the premise, the uncomfortable questions it invites into a seemingly sturdy marriage, the sort of mistake that’s so instinctive that it’s impossible to explain away. In the moment, he chose himself, and his phone, over his loved ones and there’s no form of apology that can provide him any cover. But there’s something just a few degrees off about Downhill, a niggling sense that not only was the decision to reheat a recent, universally acclaimed film unnecessary but that the decisions being made by Armstrong along with writer-director team Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are often rather misjudged.
There’s a wrestle going on throughout the film’s brief 85-minute running time between a crowd-pleasing studio comedy and something more specific and low-key and it becomes progressively difficult to know how best to consume what we’re being fed. The casting of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, two performers more typically associated with lighter fare, carries with it certain expectations and while Louis-Dreyfus fares well with the smaller moments, Ferrell doesn’t quite convince with a performance that’s forever threatening to break out into his more familiar showboat shtick. There’s a lived-in chemistry that’s missing from the pairing and the film’s great many awkward moments between them don’t feel quite as cutting or as uncomfortable as they should. It’s a dark comedy that feels too light.
There’s also a distracting outsized comic performance from Miranda Otto playing a sex-crazed Austrian who would feel more at home in a Eurotrip sequel than a considered study of marital discord. She’s just another mismatched element in a film filled with them, each clanging against the other. There are some brief insights along the way, including a potentially knotty examination of how fractions within a family can prove alienating but the film’s commentary is largely surface-level. An attempt to contrast the pair with a younger couple is similarly superficial with lazy culture clash jokes mostly involving their use of hashtags. The slightness of the plot gave room for the characters to breathe in Force Majeure but when transported to a broader, slicker canvas, it feels somehow incomplete.
Louis-Dreyfus, one of the best and most empathetic comic actors working today, is easily the standout but there’s never quite enough for her to do or say, at least not enough to warrant her alleged five-year mission to make it. Her last film was 2013’s Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener’s wonderful, humane, funny romantic comedy which gifted her with a living, breathing character who added depth to the film’s sitcom premise but her appearance in Downhill just caused me to crave more for her, something with a trickier edge perhaps, something that feels less of a given that she can pull off without breaking a sweat. I’d struggle on the spot to highlight one particular scene where she gets a moment to truly shine but then that’s a problem with the film as a whole. It doesn’t have the stickiness of the original, it’s a smooth assembly job without an edge, an agreeable enough extended episode of a show you half-watch but nothing more.
There’s nothing exactly catastrophic here but what no one involved in the film manages to do is provide adequate evidence for why this needed to exist in the first place. Ostlund should reconsider his blessing.
Source: The Guardian