There are many American movies, unbeknownst to their general audience, that are in fact remakes of lesser-known foreign-language films. Recent well-received titles like Midnight Sun (2018), Cold Pursuit (2019) and The Kindergarten Teacher (2018) are testimony to the validity of retelling such stories and subvert the blanket notion that remakes are bad. Downhill is the latest example, being a remake of the wonderful Swedish film Force Majeure, which tells the story of a family on holiday in the Swiss Alps who face a near-death experience that impacts their lives in profound ways.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star as the husband and wife whose relationship had already become strained following the passing of his father eight months prior. While enjoying a family lunch at an outdoor cafe, a routine controlled avalanche descends upon them with the cloud of snow giving the false impression of a much larger disaster. The husband picks up his phone and bolts, leaving behind his wife, presuming imminent death, to embrace their children.
Of course the white cloud dissipates and everyone resumes eating, while the American couple are left rattled by their experience. As the days pass she struggles to process the fact that her husband would leave them in a moment of crisis, and so begins a dramatic series of conversations and events that tests the very fabric of their relationship.
The greater story of Downhill is the same as Force Majeure, however various details including character traits, nuances and resolutions have been subverted to accommodate the culture shift. Being American means that their time in Switzerland is more akin to a fish out of water story, with cultural differences and misunderstandings playing a stronger part in the film’s comedic devices. This factor alone sets the film apart from its predecessor and makes for a perfectly satisfying alternative.
Some of the film’s marketing, including poster treatment and the “Will Ferrell” factor suggest a lowbrow, screwball brand of comedy, however Downhill couldn’t be further removed from such frivolity. Pitched as a ‘dramedy’ by some, for all intents and purposes you should temper expectations with an emphasis on the drama. The frayed relationship at the heart of the story is almost profound, thanks entirely to an incredible performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who has never been better.
Spending the majority of screen time bundled up in puffy winter ski-wear, Louis-Dreyfus offers up a sincere and vulnerable performance that is as equally heart-wrenching as it is inspiring. Faced with a horrible truth and an unknown future, she balances the stability and tenderness of motherhood with a relatable measure of emotional distress. Whether she’s confronting her husband face-to-face or seeking solitude atop a mountain, her character arc is absorbing.
Ferrell serves up a decent performance as the somewhat naive and buffoonish spouse, whose perception of his actions is clouded by guilt. It is an oddly measured performance, which on one hand feels misplaced at times, whereas he also hits the target when it matters. The film would have undoubtedly been stronger with a different actor in the role, but nevertheless, he doesn’t distract or hinder the story’s impact.
Downhill is directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose previous film was the profoundly understated “dramedy” The Way Way Back; these guys clearly have an affinity for this particular brand of character-driven film, where the drama is delivered with a comedic veneer. And while Downhill doesn’t quite land with the astuteness of their debut film, it does remain a very good sophomore flick. They’ve taken Force Majeure and made it their own. It doesn’t detract from that film, nor does it improve upon it, but rather offers an alternative cultural perspective.
Go and see Downhill for Julia Louis-Dreyfus – she is wonderful in every sense.
In cinemas: March 5, 2020
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto
Directed by: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash