Icy European dramedy gets watered down stateside
Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash
Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto
Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure produced some noticeable ripples in the international art film realm thanks to its icy examination of love and marriage. Existing somewhere between the banal horrors of Michael Haneke (Caché, Funny Games, The Piano Teacher) and the detached decay of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, it won the Jury Prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at both the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes. Like virtually any foreign film that receives any measurable attention, an American remake was inevitable.
The English language reshoot comes to us courtesy of the writing-directing team of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash—who did wonderful, subtle work adapting Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel The Descendants for Alexander Payne’s 2011 film version. (The duo split a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their efforts.) Unfortunately, their grip on the material seems less confident this time around. To be fair, Östlund’s original was a tough nut to crack. Billed as something of a black comedy, the film was a uniquely uncomfortable peek inside the rapidly disintegrating marriage of a vacationing couple. How funny you found its occasional “humor” depended largely on how amused you were by other people’s existential angst.
Our main characters in this Americanized go-around are Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), a middle-aged, upper-middle-class couple trying to loosen up for a change and have some fun at a fancy Austrian ski resort with their two bored teens. The inclusion of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus offers the promise of some comic hijinks. And Faxon & Rash’s version does turn up the dial on the comedy—to a degree. Those hoping for a wacky, Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby-style romp are bound to be disappointed. Ferrell, setting the tone here, finds himself much more in the seriocomic mood of 2011’s bleakly satirical indie Everything Must Go.
The basic plot follows the original fairly closely. The simple story centers entirely around a single incident that happens at the ski resort. While sitting at an outdoor restaurant with the kids, Pete and Billie watch as an avalanche, triggered by the resort’s show cannons, rumbles down the mountainside toward them. At first, diners react with awe, rising to their feet to record it on various smartphones. But as the white wall billows dangerously close, threatening to engulf the patio, Pete reacts—instinctively and none too wisely. Essentially, he gets up from the table and runs the hell away. The avalanche proves to be a bust, running out of steam before hitting the restaurant. Everyone’s fine, including Pete’s wife and kids. He returns to the table and tries to brush off what happened. But the damage has been done. The family now sees him in an entirely different light.
In the original the avalanche was even more of a non-issue, a faint dusting of snow that served as a metaphor for the stress fractures hiding under the surface of our protagonists’ stable but chilly marriage. In the 2014 version, she’s quietly horrified and he’s secretly mortified. The more they don’t talk about “the incident,” the worse it becomes. In this version, the avalanche is a bit scarier, and it leads to a lot more overt problems—mostly in the form of raised voices and heated arguments.
The glacial, observational tone of Östlund’s film (so many lengthy, uninterrupted wide shots) has been speeded up here, but the tone remains voyeuristic and uncomfortable. Yet where Östlund’s packed a primal punch, Faxon & Rash’s offers only a light slap. Gone is the hair-trigger tension—the looming mountain peaks, the threatening snowstorms, the unexpected “Boom!” of the avalanche cannons. So much in the original was left unspoken. But here, Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are freed to engage one another in angry banter—which somehow eases the building tension while increasing the discomfort level. Nobody likes to watch mom and dad fight, and at the root of it all, that’s what Downhill is.
There are weightier emotional issues that Downhill hints at. But Faxon & Rash’s script doesn’t dig nearly deep enough into the frozen tundra. Is Pete a coward? Are his actions somehow unmanly? Does he really not care for the health and safety of his family? The original film brought up these immediate questions, but quickly extrapolated beyond them, looking past the simple fear of natural disaster and into more esoteric adult bugaboos such as growing up, getting married, having kids, accepting responsibility, growing old and dying. What—for better or worse—was an uncomfortable and emotionally lacerating ride is now far more commercial and watered down, right up to the ameliorative, arguably “happy” ending this version tries to conjure. Go find the original instead.
Theaters are closed until further notice
But if you would like a snapshot to help you remember how things used to be…