Any child who went through the occasionally fun— but often tortuous, family holidays knows that your parents can’t really have quite the adventure you do, because they have you to worry about. Downhill is directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s attempt to bring Swedish film Force Majeure to an American audience. They choose to present the story as a black comedy, but closer to the classic American family vacation movie. This choice, for better and worse, defines the film.
After a family tragedy, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) take their children on a skiing holiday to get some much needed space. But on the first day as the family are settling in for lunch at a slope side restaurant they see what looks like a massive avalanche headed straight toward them. Billie rushes to protect her kids, but when the snow clears it is revealed that the avalanche was much further away than we are led to believe. She and the kids are alive, but Pete is nowhere to be found. This near-death experience threatens to rip their family apart, as both Billie and Pete are forced to face their true natures.
English language remakes are always a risk, as it assumes that there is something different that a (usually) American audience needs to appreciate the film. In this sense it is easy to see why a more comedic tone was chosen. It’s easier to relate to a family holiday going slightly wrong, than the uncomfortable, bleak tone of the original. However, the casting of two prominent American comedic actors immediately sets up certain expectations and suggests that this will be a different film. It would have benefited the film massively if the filmmakers had chosen to depart further from the Swedish film and been bolder with their own choices.
The film opens with the exact same scene, albeit in different languages, where a photographer is directing the family to pose for some cheesy holiday photographs atop a very white mountain. Neither party really understands the other and the whole scene demonstrates the complete lack of cohesion between the central characters. By starting the film in the exact same way as the original, they are limiting themselves by clinging desperately to the prestige of its predecessor. This is a problem throughout as they recycle moments and shots from Force Majeure just don’t work for this re-imagined vision.
The film creates no space Ferrell or Louis-Dreyfus to actually be funny. Pete is meant to be unlikable and represent the kind of father that was acceptable 15 years ago but is just not good enough in this day and age. But he doesn’t have to make him quite so whiny and so unwilling to listen to his family’s needs. Julia Louis-Dreyfus, on the other hand, puts up such a fight. She is every bit the rock solid core of the family, who realises she is not raising two children, but three.
The best part of the film, by a long shot, is Miranda Otto’s thick accented Charlotte; a member of hotel staff who inserts herself into Billie’s life with the intention of helping her rediscover her sexuality. Charlotte is a character who could only exist in Downhill and gives the film some much needed life and comedy. Her appearance always signals a comic break from the attempts to push the story forward.
Another moment that showed promise came near the end when Billie finds a way to save her family. The family goes up the mountain one final time before their holiday ends, but when Pete and the boys reach the bottom, Billie is not with them. Then the shouts for help begin and Pete lumbers up the piste to find her sitting, waiting for him. She looks at him sternly and says “this is for the kids”. This moment offers something we don’t get in Force Majeure: clarity. Perhaps this is because the American style of film-making requires every emotional decision to be crystal clear. But it could also offer a new insight into Billie’s journey. At the end of the day, she believes in her family. Even if Pete does not deserve the second chance she offers.
Downhill takes a critically acclaimed European film and re-imagines it as an average American not-quite-drama, not-quite-comedy. There are moments which showed its potential to offer a different perspective on this story, but the filmmakers were never willing to take their choices far enough to differentiate the film from its predecessor. Most remakes deny the existence of the source material, whereas this one leans upon it heavily. This invites an inevitable comparison where ultimately Downhill will emerge inferior. That being said, it is perhaps more enjoyable and accessible for a mainstream audience than its counterpart. A remake like this is never necessary but while they exist, the filmmakers behind the projects must push themselves to offer us something better.
Downhill is now available to rent on VOD
by Mia Garfield