AT THE MOVIES
“Downhill” Struggles to Find an Upward Trajectory
BY NOAH GITTELL
For those who think Hollywood is a place where original ideas go to die, it’s easy to scoff at the announcement of an American remake of a successful foreign-language film. Too often, it looks like a cash grab, but the truth is murkier. For every “Three Men and a Baby”, there is “The Birdcage”. For every “Dinner for Schmucks”, there’s a “Some Like it Hot”. In other words, there is no guarantee of success, no matter how good the source material is.
“Force Majeure”, the 2014 black comedy from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund, was a critical hit in the U.S., but its precise skewering of modern relationships make the adaptation into the just-released “Downhill” trickier than most. Casting Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell may have seemed like a smart bet, but their mismatched performances and the unfocused directing by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (2013’s “The Way, Way Back”) make “Downhill” a pale imitation of the much better original.
Consider how the film handles its inciting incident. Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Ferrell) are a wealthy family with two kids on a ski trip in the Alps. They seem a well-adjusted, middle-aged couple who, despite the minor frustrations and resentments that naturally accrue, haven’t lost their romantic spark. It all changes in an instant when a controlled avalanche comes a little too close to the outdoor patio where the family is having lunch. Billie grabs the kids and holds onto them for dear life. Pete grabs his cell phone and runs away.
In “Force Majeure”, Ostlund filmed the scene in one unbroken shot so that we could see for ourselves exactly what happened, even as the parties involved remembered it differently. It sets the stage for an incisive satire about gender relations. “Downhill” uses a flurry of cuts to create a feeling of chaos, so that we’re just as unsettled as the protagonists. It’s a justifiable choice, but it makes things harder in the long run.
As Billie and Pete try to avoid talking about the incident, then unleash their resentments in a long, dramatic argument in front of friends, we are stuck in the middle of a marriage in crisis. The script tries to wring a few laughs from its talented performers, but it is drawn back to its drama. “Downhill” is like a milquetoast Cassavetes movie, full of raw emotions that don’t quite reach the surface.
The problem, surprisingly, lies in the casting, or in the assumption that the film’s talented cast could all naturally arrive at the same wavelength. Louis-Dreyfus continues to make the case that the skills that have made her one of the best TV comediennes of all time translate equally well to the screen. She gets her laughs in “Downhill”, but she also gives a surprisingly layered performance. As Billie struggles to adjust to the revelations of her husband’s cowardice, rich contradictions emerge. She can discuss the incident rationally, but her voice trembles as she replays the details of the trauma to the couple’s friends. She holds her head up high, but her eyes relay a profound sadness. She teeters between comedy and drama and captures the full complexity of the human spirit.
On the other side of the ledger, Ferrell either doesn’t have the chops to match her or doesn’t care to try. He seems content to coast on the man-child persona that has largely defined his comedic work. Many of the hallmarks are there in the script, including a sequence when he tries to drown his sorrows at a nearby club and ends up making a drunken buffoon of himself. But Ferrell never fully invests in the character, and it makes for an unflattering contrast to the deep character work Louis-Dreyfus is doing opposite him.
This mismatch is also evident in the film’s supporting characters, who include Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a comically oversexed hotel employee who latches onto them and tries to get Billie to embrace a polygamous lifestyle. Then there’s Zach (Zach Woods), Pete’s travel-obsessed Millennial work friend, who underplays his character’s smugness and does but sit and smile at Pete’s conundrum. These characters are not in the same film, or they shouldn’t be.
“Downhill” has a few charms. It’s short, clocking in at only 86 minutes, and it features one of the best female performances in recent years. But these rewards get buried under an avalanche of bad choices, and no one in the audience will be able to climb their way out.
My Rating: Put it on Your Queue