September 28, 2020

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Remake a different kind of disaster

American version of Swedish film fails to capture existential dread

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 15/2/2020 (226 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Sometimes movie titles are just asking for trouble. This exasperating comedy-drama starts with a good premise — taken from its much better source material, the Swedish film Force Majeure — and goes, well, downhill from there.

Pete and Billie Stanton (Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their two tween boys have come to an exclusive Austrian ski resort for some family time. When an avalanche barrels toward the restaurant patio where they’re all lunching, Pete grabs his phone — not his children — and runs for it.

Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight </p><p>A near-death experience puts a chill on the relationship between Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, left) and Pete (Will Ferrell).</p>

Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight

A near-death experience puts a chill on the relationship between Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, left) and Pete (Will Ferrell).

When the snow cloud clears, we see the avalanche has stopped just short of the patio. It’s a disaster nonetheless, at least for the Stantons. Pete’s behaviour in that pivotal moment, when he leaves Billie huddled with their terrified kids — as well as his later inability to talk about it — forces the couple into a radical reconsideration of their family roles.

In 2014’s Force Majeure, filmmaker Ruben Ostlund cranked up the existential dread, deconstructing modern masculinity while exploring the insulation of money and the isolation of technology. An auteur of seriocomic discomfort, he offered no easy answers, just difficult questions — for his main characters and for his audience.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants), Downhill’s co-directors and co-scripters, have created a bunny-hill version of the original, going too broad in the humour and too shallow in the drama.

Their underachieving adaptation is made even more frustrating by glints of real potential, particularly in Louis-Dreyfus’s performance, which balances rueful, self-aware comedy with some serious emotional work.

Louis-Dreyfus (a multiple Emmy winner for her work in Veep and Seinfeld) has a riveting scene in which Billie relives the avalanche trauma in front of some visibly uncomfortable guests (Zoe Chao and Zach Woods, as stereotyped millennials). Just as effective, however, are Louis-Dreyfus’s more mundane moments, in which she subtly conveys Billie’s fatigue at being the family organizer, the emotional facilitator, the person who has to police safety standards and screen-time and fruit consumption.

Ferrell, unfortunately, doesn’t quite match his co-star. The Saturday Night Live alum’s long history of doing comic send-ups of oblivious men makes it hard for him to really inhabit a dramatic version of the same type.

Pete’s split-second action on the patio should reveal a much larger crisis. Pete is obsessed with aging and mortality, precipitated by the death of his father. Instead of showing us an upper-middle-class family man confronting the void, though, Ferrell plays him as a mostly amiable, occasionally mopey goofster.

Some comic sequences — one with Force Majeure co-star and Game of Thrones actor Kristofer Hivju — come off, but others are just cringey. And there’s a tendency to find Europeans funny simply because they’re European. The character of Eurotrashy resort concierge Charlotte (Miranda Otto), for example, tips over into loud caricature as she lectures puritanical Americans about sexual hedonism and obligatory sauna nudity.

The story’s dramatic dimensions are likewise overplayed, the characters’ emotional and moral confusion wrapped neatly into an obvious final lesson.

Tripping over its skis, this is a remake that never finds its own balance. The best thing Downhill can do is get film fans to seek out Force Majeure.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight</p><p>Will Ferrell, left, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kristofer Hivju in Downhill.</p>

Jaap Buitendijk/Fox Searchlight

Will Ferrell, left, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kristofer Hivju in Downhill.

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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