Monday, 16 March 2020

Downhill ★★★☆☆

Of all the Valentine’s Day film releases in the US this year, Downhill was an odd one. A remake of 2014’s slightly obscure Force Majeure, the story centres around a couple whose marriage begins to fall apart after the husband leaves his family to die in a split-second decision.

It hardly seems like the best subject matter for spending quality time with a loved one, but it’s presented as a black comedy at first. After all, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) make up the main twosome, on holiday with their boys in the Alps when a controlled avalanche makes it seem like they’re about to be engulfed in a snowstorm. Pete turns tail and runs away at the last moment, causing the family to re-evaluate his role over the next few days as he continues to feign ignorance about his decision. Given the comedy chops of the couple, it’s surprising that Downhill is more of a measured drama, using cringe moments to add or break the tension when necessary.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have worked to adapt the original for a US audience predominantly, but it’s hard to see why they bothered in the first place. Only six years have passed since the original was released, and it received Golden Globe nominations despite remaining fairly niche. The problem is, while Force Majeure is sure to be remembered well by cinephiles, Ferrell’s foray is more accessible for a mainstream audience used to his face on the poster. Compared to the Swedish version, some of the nuances is probably lost in translation, and he’s nowhere near as abrasive in his portrayal of a man who effectively left his family to die. Other guests and a hyped-up instructor (Kristofer Hivju) make up the rest of the cast, although most are cut-and-paste stereotypes of Europeans through an American lens. 

It’s been a while since Ferrell has been at his box-office best, and this might not have been the ideal project for the former Anchorman star. He’s always going to lean into the more comedic elements of any character; even if his schtick is getting slightly tiresome after two decades of the same thing. Then again, it’s still a compelling idea for a film, even if casting an older couple changes the message ever so slightly. (After so long, you’d expect them to know each other's strengths and weaknesses, as opposed to the younger couple in the original who had to learn the hard way.)

I spent a few years arguing with my missus about the legitimacy of men being seen as meat shields, there to absorb any and all damage sent their way dutifully for family members. Of course, it depends on the content, and a failure to do so can make for a compelling character or story, be it Theon Greyjoy’s craven escape in Game of Thrones, or the desperation seen in the intro for 28 Weeks Later. This time, it causes cracks to appear almost instantly, even if it’s wrapped up sappily with a few minutes to spare. 

James Millin-Ashmore

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