Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed
Downhill (Nat Faxon/Jim Rash, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
American remakes of foreign-language films can seem like a pointless exercise: if only audiences in the United States were more willing to read subtitles, why would we need these adaptations at all? That said, there have been some worthy efforts over the years, including movies like Three Men and a Baby, The Birdcage, The Departed, The Ring, Let Me In and The Kindergarten Teacher (as well as duds like The Man with One Red Shoe, Solaris and Oldboy). The trick, as with all things, is to have a purpose beyond the mercenary. Lest meaning be lost in translation, have something to say and know how to migrate the narrative into its new cultural context, beyond the linguistic shift. Such is the case with the latest such movie, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s Downhill, which takes as its departure point Ruben Östlund’s 2014 marvelous Force Majeure and runs the story up a whole new flagpole, keeping the basic structure but changing many of the details. The result is a fresh perspective on the premise, to the benefit of all involved.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (HBO’s Veep) and Will Ferrell (Holmes & Watson) play Billie and Pete, a married couple who, as per the original film, have taken their family on an alpine vacation, here to Austria’s gorgeous Ischgl. Seemingly comfortable in their own skins (though Pete cannot stay off his iPhone), they are set for a week of fun, though one of their two sons, in an early sign of trouble, loudly declares that he hates skiing. It also turns out that the resort in which Pete has booked them to stay is more an adults-only kind of place, with the family-friendly hotel twenty minutes away. Is Dad, perhaps, feeling a little stressed in his role as reliable parent, yearning for freedom? Given the frequency of his texts with a younger (unmarried) colleague on a simultaneous European vacation with his wild new girlfriend, it appears that way. Still, at least he loves his wife and kids, right?
Or so they and (maybe) he think, until an avalanche, set off on purpose by the resort to manage loose snow, hits a little too close. Dining outdoors, the family is blanketed in snow. Billie and the boys are, that is; Pete, taking his electronic gadget with him, has decamped, returning only once the danger is passed. What to make of this lack of paternal protectiveness, this lack of concern? Nothing at all, if Pete has his way, initially brushing off any and all attempts to discuss. Billie, a fierce one when provoked, is not having it, though she gets to that point only after Pete repeatedly deflects. Soon, the family is embroiled in an emotional crisis. What to do?
Force Majeure had its many moments of comedy, despite the grim subtext, but Downhill pushes the humor even more; not, however, as much as one might think, given who headlines the film. Both Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell play it with restraint, abstaining from the hijinks of which we know them capable, though always aware of the pathetic farce that undergirds their relationship. Directors Faxon and Rash (The Way Way Back) show similar discipline, throughout, though they allow a few moments of delightful outrageousness, courtesy of supporting actors Miranda Otto (Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), as a sexually liberated hotel concierge, and Giulio Berruti, (Walking on Sunshine) as a sexy ski instructor. Adding their considerable talents to the ensemble are Zoe Chao (Where’d You Go, Bernadette) and Zach Woods (HBO’s Silicon Valley), as well as Kristofer Hivju, the only performer (that I could tell) in both films, though his role here is different (and quite funny, too). Overall, the film is, at 86 minutes, brisk and entertaining.
It is also very insightful about the risks and rewards of long-term marriages. One has to step up and meet the challenges; better to just leave, otherwise. We are all imperfect specimens of our species, but if we don’t try to be present, we aren’t much good to anyone. If (only) occasionally a little forced in its dialogue and examination of these issues, Downhill proves a fine example of what can go right with new treatments of old subjects, transposing the characters and story into a slightly altered context that makes this new movie its own delightful work of art.