The team behind Downhill doesn’t seem to be burdened with the guiding principle to make things interesting or fresh. All you have is a set of endless scenes of surreal nonsense, pure jibber-jabber, and that’s like traveling on a gondola ride to nowhere.
I can tolerate almost anything when it comes to the art of filmmaking. Creatives have their own unique visions and only the best take you for a ride when you don’t know the destination. You may not like the destination or the result; for instance, Darron Aronofsky’s Mother! is a crazy ride that by the end I and many others didn’t take to. At least you could tell the effort was there and the team behind it cared enough about the material they produced. The filmmakers behind Downhill don’t seem to be burdened with that same principle; remaking a film and adding nothing to it but endless improvised scenes of pure jibber-jabber, it’s like traveling on a gondola at a flat angle to nowhere.
This latest, I think it’s a comedy, is from the team behind a much better film, The Way, Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. They adapted Downhill from the French (also Norwegian and Swedish) film, Force Majeure, that was showered with awards but has a sort of a cult reputation among film fiends for being divisive. The married couple in this version is American, Billie and Pete Staunton, and are played by Julia-Louise Dreyfuss and Will Ferrell. They take their family on a vacation in the Swiss Alps when suddenly a planned avalanche comes dangerously close to the outdoor eating area they were dining at. Some patrons were covered with fresh powder. Tables and chairs were knocked over. Dreyfuss’s Billie is left shaken after attempted to shield her two sons; Pete, on the other hand, grabbed his phone and ran for safety. Some might understand his logic; he has only one phone on him, and you know, there are two kids.
The award-winning Force Majeure was a much more cohesive film than this one, with darkly comic elements and each scene having a purpose. It’s a situation that suddenly goes from having the world on a string and then showing cracks in their once-perfect foundation. This time around, the same goes here except the beginning. You have the sense Pete is having a midlife crisis by booking them in a notorious singles resort instead of the family spot 20 minutes away. He also is obsessed with a younger co-worker living his best life all over his Instagram page (played by one of the few bright spots, Silicon Valley‘s Zack Woods, but that fades quickly).
There are two main issues with the Faxon and Rash remake — the first is that most of these scenes are repetitive, rehashing the issues, nor adding anything of probative value. It’s filled with much meaningless riffed banter that either comes off as improvised or may actually be but is painfully laugh-free. The result is an 86-minute movie that felt even longer, when brilliant to awful would have made the time go by much faster.
The other is that Will Ferrell is woefully miscast here. This is a role that needed some refinement and nuance to explore the various hints at a midlife crisis, depression, or even try to explore that him abandoning his family could be coming to grips with his own mortality after the loss of his father. The script from Rash and Faxon doesn’t come close to exploring these issues anywhere beneath the surface level. Instead, it wants to have its cake and eat it too by doing everything average, instead of doing one thing interestingly.
Downhill wants to be an edgy comedy about a sudden change in the family dynamic, but too often it toes the line between character study (which it does poorly), of biting comedy (in which it has very few teeth) and drama (which it does with no sense of urgency, meaning, and is interrupted by too many Ferrell-like overdone bits). Sam Rockwell, for instance, would have been a stronger, better choice to delve into Pete’s themes instead of countless attempts at Ferrell’s surreal expressions of nonsense. This is perplexing since the SNL vet has displayed he can act and has a wider range than shown here with Stranger than Fiction and to a lesser extent, Everything Must Go.
Life is fleeting, and you should want to spend it at the movies with filmmakers who take risks, make interesting choices, and don’t simply recycle old material into a remake of a much better film. Downhill is lazy and comes out average at almost everything it tries instead of being great at one thing. It’s an overall flat experience, and that’s what’s the most offensive of all.
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M.N. Miller has been a film and television writer for Ready Steady Cut since August of 2018 and is patiently waiting for the next Pearl Jam album to come out.