Downhill has the impossible task of following up a masterpiece. Directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund, Force Majeure was a fierce marital drama that made audiences question their own relationship problems. The only thing this remake makes you think about, however, is- why was it made?
The plot is the same as the original. Pete (Will Farrell) and Billie’s (Julia-Louis Dreyfus) marriage is on a slippery slope, so they take a family vacation to the Alps to figure things out. The setting certainly is therapeutic. Trees are blanketed with snow. The sun rests just above the mountains. Acres of silence are interrupted only by the sound of snowboarders. But this peaceful tone doesn’t last long. When one of the resort’s controlled avalanches makes its way toward the lunch terrace, Pete ditches his wife and kids to save himself. Bad idea. He returns to frigid stares from Billie, who is hugging her shivering kids (Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford), and the sinking feeling that he has broken the number one rule of marriage: happy wife, happy life.
From here things snowball out of control. When Pete and Billie return to the resort, their disconnect is expressed visually. The two are brushing their teeth at separate sinks with a wall standing between them. Instead of flossing together, each would rather be alone. This use of cinematic space recalls Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, another drama about a marriage falling apart. And the idea of using physical barriers as symbolic barriers works here as well.
What doesn’t work this time around are the characters. Pete is supposed to be the bad guy because he left his family to die. But it’s Billie who comes off cold-hearted. She leaves the family for a “solo day,” cancels a helicopter ride because her son forgot gloves and treats Pete’s friends like uninvited guests. They actually are uninvited- Pete asked them to join without asking his wife. Not cool. But Billie seems to have left kindness off her packing list. It’s no fun to watch.
The rest of the run time is dedicated to situational comedy. With Pete’s young friends Zach (Zach Woods) and Rosie (Zoe Chao) entering the picture, the older couple do their best “cool kid” impressions to fit in. While it’s entertaining to watch Pete and Zach down shots at a nightclub, and engrossing to watch Billie hit on a zesty 20-year-old, the couple trying to act young gets old fast.
Don’t blame the actors for the film’s failure, though. It isn’t their fault that the dialogue is boring, or that things move at a ski lift pace, or that the movie goes on and on and on and on, much like this sentence. Instead, blame it on Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. The directing duo, who previously made the life-affirming The Way, Way Back, have trouble setting up punchlines -not to mention tone- here.
There’s a difference between making an audience squirm and making them laugh at a character’s awkwardness. What makes The Office so watchable is the way it taps into second-hand-embarrassment. Is there anything funnier than watching Michael Scott (Steve Carell) make a fool of himself? You can’t help but smile when he tries to impress the youthful Ryan (B.J. Novak) by growing out a goatee. On the contrary, when Pete and Billie try to be hip, it’s as painful as a ski accident.
Downhill was obviously made for those scared of reading subtitles (as English-speakers would have to do with the Force Majeure). Bong Joon-Ho touched on this problem at the Golden Globes. When accepting Parasite’s award for Best Foreign Film, he stated that, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” Hopefully his win will encourage Americans to give more foreign gems a try. If we don’t, in many cases Americanized versions like this aptly-named drivel are what we’ll be left with.