When comedic actors play dramatic roles, there’s a tendency for audiences to expect a funny film. The trailer for Downhill seems to make it clear that the film is a family drama but still, the comments on a local theater Facebook page indicate that some people expected comedy or thought it was appropriate for the whole family. The clue might have been in the “R” rating or the reviews.
There’s a lot going on in this tale of a ski trip gone off the rails. The film explores gender roles, parenting and how a split second decision can change the course of your life. Julia Louis-Dreyfus has an easier time navigating the gravitas of the story. Her character is the heart of the film and she does a great job inhabiting the role of the loving mother concerned about the emotional health of her family. The cowardly father is an uncomfortable fit for Will Ferrell. Perhaps because we expect to see goofy behavior, it’s harder for audiences to buy him in this dramatic role. He’s not had much experience playing the straight man and we keep expecting him to act silly.
On the other hand, there’s a built-in sympathy for both characters because of the general love audiences have for the actors playing the roles. We want this couple to find resolution and to have good relationships with their kids. The young actors playing the sons do a good job of portraying children realizing that their father may be a bit of a jerk. That realization; that their father isn’t going to protect them and may not have the capacity to understand their trauma, is made clear in their sorrowful downtrodden behavior.
Downhill isn’t all doom and gloom. There are breathtaking views, exciting skiing footage and some funny moments. I felt the cast did a good job. Miranda Otto has a great time as the sleazy ski bunny/hotel concierge, repeatedly calling the resort “the Ibiza of the Alps”. The director, Nat Faxon, did a good job updating Force Majeure for the shorter attention span of American audiences. Though it becomes predictable and trite in short order, the film has some emotional moments. When Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character finally gains the upper hand and takes action to let her husband save face…you wonder if she’s making the best choice. Do you save your family and shore up the respect lost by a moment of stupidity or do you cut your losses and know that in another crisis, your husband might act in the same cowardly fashion?
For audiences, perhaps the best choice is to watch the original Swedish film. Both darker and more thought-provoking, Force Majeure, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, opened in 2014. The story takes longer to unfold (2 hours vs 90 min) and lacks the comedic elements of Downhill. Instead of the Miranda Otto character, there’s another resort guest who has a frank sexuality talk with the mother and no hunky ski instructor. The film also has four languages as befitting a story set in the French Alps. A significant character in Force Majeure, Kristopher Hivju (Game of Thrones) reappears in a tiny role in Downhill. Instead of two boys, there’s a young son and an older daughter in Force Majeure and the time spent developing the family bonds is longer and has more depth. There’s a lovely scene with the entire family sleeping together after a day skiing and again, at night, with everyone brushing their teeth.
Both films use the couple’s time in the bathroom to reflect their growing discontent. Oddly, both films seem to have quite a few scenes of urinating, though Julia Louis Dreyfus uses the restroom for self-pleasuring. An entire plot point about an awful bus driver is missing in Downhill (probably for the better) and the resolution is much subtler in the Swedish film. The audience isn’t privy to why the mother needs to be carried down the ski run and the father has a much more dramatic breakdown in Force Majeure. The Hollywood film features gorgeous bluebird skies and more scenes outside the hotel room. There’s a lot more grey, snowy days in the original. To find a private moment, the couple exits their room to stand awkwardly in their underwear outside. And limiting the big emotional scenes to the cramped hotel room and the door of the hallway, the father’s breakdown has a bigger emotional punch but also makes the moment more of a farce.
Neither film is going to be a new favorite of mine. Watching Force Majeure as an avalanche of snow rumbled down off my roof in Telluride; crashing in a thunderous tumult…that’ll make me remember the experience of watching that film. And racing to see the film and write my film review for Downhill for the local paper, only to have it pulled once there was notice that the movie theater was closing for the week due to Coronavirus fears the NEXT DAY…well, that’ll make me remember Downhill.
You can save your disinfectant wipes and maintain your social distancing if you stay home to rent the original film on many streaming services or watch Force Majeure on Hulu.
Drinks with Films Ratings
Downhill — 2 Fireball shots, pounded back to the beat of electronic music at an afternoon disco (out of 5)
Force Majeure – 2 glasses of expensive red wine, sipped between bouts of sobbing (out of 5)