Stumbling ‘Downhill’ (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=5.00]

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Downhill had a lot going for it. On the surface, it certainly does. Not only do you have the star power of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but you also have the genius of writing partners and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who won an Oscar for screenwriting back in 2012 with The Descendants, and have built their career on writing dryly hilarious, emotionally nuanced films that, rightly, earn acclaim.

And yet, for all that Downhill has going in its favor it has one towering hump that it can never—could never—manage to get over. That hump is Force Majeure, the 2014 work of genius from Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund, the film that Downhill adapts.

Force Majeure was a work of powerful insight, deftly mixing comedy and drama in an exploration of humanity and what drives us. It is, very nearly, a perfect film. At the very least, it’s a work that deserves to be seen and discussed. Östlund walked a very fine line with that film and ended up creating a work of devastating beauty, absolute hilarity, and soul-crushing depth. It is pointless to try and top it.

And yet, here we are, discussing its remake. Faxon and Rash, two writers who ought to know better, do their damnedest to adapt perfection and yet all their efforts fall painfully and embarrassingly short. I suppose if one is not familiar with the source material then there might be something to gain from seeing this pale imitation; on its own merits, disregarding the towering achievement of Force Majeure, it’s fair to say that Downhill is a perfectly okay movie. But why settle for paying $15 for perfectly okay when you can just stay home and watch perfect on Hulu for free?

Downhill is, in a word, unnecessary.

Like its predecessor, Downhill follows the family sky vacation of a husband and wife, Pete and Billie (Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus) and their two kids which becomes something of an endurance test for their relationship following an avalanche that seemingly threatens the family. When Pete runs away from the avalanche instead of helping his family, Billie becomes embittered wondering why her husband wouldn’t try to save her and their children. With the cracks in their foundation exposed, Pete and Billie try to navigate the emotions of each other as their vacation wears on.

Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus give fine enough performances, I suppose. Louis-Dreyfus, fresh off her brilliant run on Veep, seems to have a deep understanding of the character and manages to portray spousal angst convincingly, and the two have a great combination of awkward chemistry which the story inherently needs.

While Faxon and Rash do a decent job behind the camera, the script leaves something to be desired. Though they admirably catch moments of awkward comedy, Downhill feels as if it was written without purpose and that its writers knew that going into the project. Coming in at about half-hour shorter than Force Majeure, Downhill misses a lot of the depth and nuance of its predecessor which made it so good. Instead, perhaps in an effort to become something new, the script leans further into the comedy, crafting it into just another madcap series of misadventures rather than a powerful exploration of marriage and relationships.

The duo have, until now, produced an amazing body of work and speaks to their talents as writers and directors, and it’s easy to overlook the misfire here. I’m not sure what hubris could make anyone think that this remake was a good idea, but I guess someone had to do the job. I can forgive them that. But that doesn’t make this film any less pointless. Downhill, ultimately, fights an uphill battle of relevance that it just can’t overcome. Best just to forget about it and, if you haven’t seen it, check out Force Majeure instead.

Downhill is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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