I’ve never seen Force Majeure. Despite the acclaim, I never got around to watching the Swedish modern classic of a marriage in turmoil. However, having left the cinema after seeing Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus take a stab at an Americanized version of what I imagine the European original to be like, I can’t help but feel like Downhill is a cheap American knock off.
The premise of Downhill takes after Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure, telling the story of a couple on a family ski vacation that sees their relationship come to a breaking point after a certain event shapes what each other consider important in the face of a crisis. For Pete (Ferrell) he decides to avoid confrontation and act as if nothing happened, but Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) dwells on the circumstances, slowly reeling from the shock to a feeling of hurt. This incident hangs over the couple during their trip, and tensions mount when Pete’s colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and wife Rosie (Zoe Chao) stop by for a visit, as well as when relaying the incident to a number of other people at the resort. Cracks appear as the relationship dissolves slowly.
As the first time these two comedy legends have worked together, it feels as if the film misses the mark on its tone. It buffs out the rugged edges one would expect from a film about a marriage at its breaking point. It tries to underplay its own stakes with cheap comedy and struggles to find the balance that would allow it to soar. Rather than present a stripped down performance from these two broad comedy professionals, it hams it up even more. Neither character is funny nor are the circumstances, so why try to overcompensate for its more serious tone. This is easily reflected in the overly sexual hotel assistant Charlotte (Miranda Otto) who seems like a character from a National Lampoon film than one that belongs here.
On the performance side of things, this is without a doubt Louis-Dreyfus’ film. Her acting of the wife whose bliss becomes betrayal is the film’s shining light and you can feel the pain she is in under the circumstances. Her scene with Ferrell, Woods and Chao is the highlight of the film in my opinion. Likewise she isn’t one dimensional, going through her own internal conflicts and presents an interesting character in an otherwise bland movie. Meanwhile for Ferrell he plays yet another man-child whose maturity is never tested, until towards the end. It’s his way or no way, and his childish behaviour almost makes you think that Billie is the uptight shrew, until you remember that he’s a father of two who should really just grow up. His scenes are some of the worst of his catalogue, which is unfortunate, given his history. Whether it’s the script trying to trap him in one stereotype or him not being able to manage a performance of this complexity, it doesn’t hit the mark.
Ultimately there’s two key events, one near the end, and one that is the final scene of the film, that attempt to tie up the conflict. However, too hurriedly, it falls flat and undermines the progress the film has made so far. No doubt a reprieve for comedy viewers who felt the film may be too much on the heavy side at times, it cheapens the final product and brings you back down to earth (in that it reminds you it’s a Hollywood film). It’s here, again, you feel the tension between the comedy film that could have been or the drama of a marital discord. Co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have fundamentally taken an award winning story and lightened it to the point that it doesn’t seem to justify its experience.
I would say it’s a waste of a cast and story that had so much potential. Fortunately in this circumstance, I don’t have to dream of what could have been…I’ll go watch Force Majeure tonight instead.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus provides a superb performance that is wry, funny and affective, of a woman who is battling both internally and externally. You can feel her raw emotion and she is the star of the show.
Is this a comedy or drama? Is it better than the original? I don’t know the answer to either question, but you won’t miss much if you decide to give it a miss.
Originally published on Back Row, 3 March, 2020.