Downhill doesn’t quite do its source material justice

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is great, but this remake of Ruben Ostlund’s brilliant Force Majeure simplifies things considerably.

In a perfect and just world, we’d treat remakes with exactly the amount of expectations that we offer a cover song. No one has ever, to my knowledge, gone completely off the rails under the auspices that a cover song ruined their childhood. We’re also much more forgiving of an artist taking huge chances and veering off the beaten path when it comes to a song; granted, songs usually last three to five minutes and movies last at least fifteen times that. Movies are expensive and visible and last more or less forever; songs can be chucked into the dustbin of history easily, which is not something that’s likely to happen to the new Lion King or Pet Semetary. Still, expectations weigh heavily on remakes, so much so that I find it impossible not to make direct comparisons when I’ve seen the original. That approach also helps no one; a remake cannot possibly stand on its own two feet if everything about it is judged against what came before it.

Alas, Jim Rash and Nat Faxon’s Downhill does precious little to separate itself from those comparisons with Ruben Ostlund’s Force majeure, one of the great discomfort epics of the 2010s. Force majeure has a distinctly European sensibility that stews in soul-shattering discomfort without necessarily ratcheting everything up to American levels of “cringe comedy”; it’s a movie that makes you sit in it but doesn’t point it out to passerby in order to humiliate you. You’d think that an American remake would automatically close that gap, but to their credit, Rash and Faxon actually dial it in a little. They also, however, lay it all out immediately, making Downhill less a film about the creeping malaise of “the truth” and more about a really protracted couples fight.

Paul (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are two upper-middle class Americans who have brought their two tween sons to Switzerland for a skiing holiday. Their relationship seems comfortable, if somewhat light on the passion that presumably flourished when they first got together. We get our first few signs of discontent when Paul seems rather hell-bent on meeting up with a younger coworker (Zach Woods) who’s travelling through Europe on a whim with his new girlfriend (Zoe Chao), a social engagement that Billie has little interest in. One day, while having lunch on a terrace at the foot of the mountain, the family encounters what at first appears to be a controlled avalanche. When it becomes clear that it is not, Paul grabs his phone and bolts, leaving his family to (presumably) die. When it turns out to be a false alarm, Paul returns and attempts to brush it off – but that split second grows to redefine their relationship and their lives.

Force majeure was a movie about what happens when you realize something about someone you think you know and the way you’d rather do anything but confront those feelings; though it was a film that was definitely about confrontation, it had a more laconic and uncomfortable relationship with the truth and how to say it. Downhill is more directly confrontational and more specifically about certain aspects of a midlife crisis. It’s an interesting notion to make Downhill about older people who had children somewhat later on in life as opposed to the upwardly-mobile thirtysomethings of Force majeure but it’s strange to otherwise keep the sparse visual style of the original. Force majeure contrasts the sick, pit-of-the-stomach malaise with wide-open, sweeping shots of the Swiss Alps, while Downhill plays out a more bitter version against the same backdrop.

One of the defining characteristics of Force majeure (or, at the very least, the way I personally perceived it) is that it sees all of its characters grappling with a situation that they know is morally indefensible – but one that they know very well is within the realm of possibility for themselves. The Billie character (Ebba in the original) is so put off by what her husband has done because, in a sense, she understands it; she just wishes it wasn’t even in the realm of possibility. Downhill is much more cut-and-dry about the morality of the thing: Paul did an unforgivably bad thing and he should feel bad about it and presumably never be forgiven for it. Almost everything about Downhill is taken from Force majeure and yet the film is about something very different; it’s an admirable attempt to weave another tale out of the same material, but the changes sometimes feel random when placed against so many similar elements.

One of those changes is the choice to nudge the focus ever so slightly onto the female character of the central couple. The shift has made Downhill a film that’s more explicitly about gender roles within the family unit; while I would argue that this is mainly wasted in the final product, it does give Louis-Dreyfus a rare chance to flex some dramatic muscle in a movie. Louis-Dreyfus has only made two live-action movies in the last twenty-three years, so it’s easy to forget how compelling an actress she can be outside of comedy. Much of what works in Downhill is thanks to her; she manages to smooth over the more simplistic and moralistic aspects of the film by creating an emphatic character. I’d argue, of course, that one emphatic character is precisely the opposite of the point of Force majeure, but Downhill isn’t that.

In a way, Downhill represents exactly what most remakes should be; it takes the bones of the original and tries to make something different out of it. In this case, it’s something less rich and less interesting than the source material — but at least it’s something different. It’s the equivalent of a cover song that’s note-for-note the same, but where all of the guitar parts have been swapped for an organ; it fully accomplishes what it sought out to do, though I would argue that that’s a little beside the point. ■

Downhill is in Montreal theatres on Friday, Feb. 14. Watch the trailer below.

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