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Downhill (A Movie Review)

Updated: Feb 21, 2020



Starring Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Zach Woods, Zoë Chao, Miranda Otto, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford, Kristofer Hivju, Alex Macqueen, Julian Grey, Giulio Berruti, Nadiv Molcho, Jono Bergmann, Peter Schorn, Ferdinand Ramml, Kimberly Rydell, Hélène Cardona, Anita Hafner and Matt Lindquist.

Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.

Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash.

Distributed by Searchlight Pictures. 86 minutes. Rated R.

Ruben Östlund’s 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure was a pitch black look at a long-time marriage fracturing during a family vacation at a sterile Alps ski resort in which a near-miss avalanche shows the father’s true colors – he embraces his flight instinct and leaves his wife and children to fend for themselves. This split-second decision – he quite possibly never even made a conscious choice, it may have been instinct – escalates the cracks in his relationship, leading to a very dark comedy-drama about troubled families and sexual roles.

It was sometimes very funny, but in no way was it a laugh-out-loud farce about a dysfunctional family. So, when actors-turned-filmmakers Nat Faxon (Friends from College) and Jim Rash (Community) decided to translate Force Majeure for American audiences, for the lead role they turned to… umm… Will Ferrell???

Luckily, they have reeled in much of Ferrell’s normal overgrown frat-boy shtick – there is less wild yelling and gesticulating and no running around shirtless in the snow. However, it still begs the question – can Ferrell rein himself in enough to play the subtle human emotions that are required in the story? After all, I can only think of one time that Ferrell played a nuanced, serious role, in the underrated and mostly forgotten film Stranger than Fiction. However, his normal acting style is over-the-top ridiculous.

And honestly, no, Faxon and Rash don’t even try to capture the coiled intensity of the original film. Downhill is a more whimsical, surface-level cover version of the very dark story. It is relatively faithful to the plot line, but it puts a lighter and brighter coat of paint on it.

It’s not nearly as good as Force Majeure, and yet it’s also not as bad a redo as you might fear.

This is Faxon and Rash’s first film since the sadly mostly forgotten 2013 nostalgic comedy The Way Back. The pair also won an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for their 2011 co-write with director Alexander Payne on the acclaimed George Clooney film The Descendants. They know how to tell a story visually, and they are handed a very intriguing tale here.

Luckily, even though the ads are promoting Downhill as a goofy Will Ferrell comedy, Faxon and Rash are willing to wallow in the darker aspects of the idea, though they tend to sand down the edge of the Swedish original.

Also, if Ferrell is somewhat miscast as the husband, hiring Julia Louis-Dreyfus to play the wife was a complete slam dunk. While she shines in the comic parts of the film, she really impresses with her dramatic work here. One particular scene, where she finally calls out her husband for leaving them behind in front of two people she barely knows, shows how intense and affecting Downhill could have been if it hadn’t been working so hard to “American-ize” the story with sitcom-y characters like an over-sexed concierge (Miranda Otto).

The new version also has to give the story a bit of a feel-good Hollywood ending, rather than the pitch-black explosion of anger in the Force Majeure climax – though the final shot of Downhill does add a welcome note of ambiguity to the proceedings.

If you are going to Downhill looking for a wacky Will Ferrell comedy, you will probably be disappointed – although there are some humorous aspects and I did even hear people at the film screening laughing at some slightly inappropriate but not necessarily funny parts. However, most of Downhill, even with slapstick scenes of Ferrell being literally fall-down drunk, tends to be more circumspect and a little depressing.

If you want to see this story told right, you are better off streaming Force Majeure. However, if you are unfamiliar with the original film – which many Americans are – you may just find Downhill an interesting new-millennial Scenes from a Marriage.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2020 All rights reserved. Posted: February 13, 2020.

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