Downhill – Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell’s remake of Swedish writer/director Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 breakout comedy Force Majeure – has been savaged by the critics and flatly rejected by audiences. The film currently sports a terrible 39% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes and an even worse 12% audience score. The box office has been equally anemic, with Downhill’s debut weekend just barely landing in the top 10, outgrossed by Dolittle’s fifth weekend and Jumanji: The Next Level’s tenth. Oof.
The world, it seems, has happily moved on. The latest Google Trend search for “Downhill film” indicates the current interest level is next to zero. Earlier this week, the industry trades reported Ferrell is re-teaming with his old Anchorman pal Paul Rudd to co-headline a TV series based on the Wondery/Bloomberg Media The Shrink Next Door. Louis-Dreyfus – who believed in Downhill enough to make it her maiden voyage as a film producer – already moved on from this a month ago when she signed an exclusive overall deal to both produce and star in projects for Apple TV Plus. Downhill’s co-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who last directed a film 7 years ago, told the Big Picture podcast they are very close to finalizing their next gig. The film’s original screenwriter, Jesse Armstrong, has a little show called Succession to busy himself with.
In this current crowded media atmosphere, Downhill had the briefest of windows to make an impression and it failed, not a good look for a distributor – (formerly Fox) Searchlight Pictures – that is probably just a couple of years away from being nothing but a content farm for Hulu.
That makes this an especially awkward moment to admit the following: I like this movie. It’s not perfect, with obvious tonal struggles, as is so often the way with genre-straddling films like this that aspire to neither straight comedy nor pure drama but a muted mixture of both. However, I enjoyed Downhill as a midlife crisis dramedy with unapologetically flawed characters and the always-enjoyable Zach Woods popping up for adlibbed supporting humor. Not that my opinion much matters in this instance. Downhill, as a cultural product, is dead, or at least it is until home video.
The, ahem, downhill momentum for Downhill really started at Sundance last month. No longer just Robert Redford’s indie movie incubator, Sundance now routinely hosts worldwide openings of smaller Hollywood movies angling for good word-of-mouth campaigns. Where better, Searchlight execs figured, to debut a movie about an American couple (Louis-Dreyfus, Ferrell) and their two young kids vacationing at a ski resort than at a film festival in a town (Park City) that has not one but two different ski resorts. Then again, Downhill is a movie about a happily married couple slowly falling apart after the husband abandons the family in the face of an apparent avalanche. Too close to home for a bunch of film lovers and industry people with one eye on the screen and another on the slopes?
Perhaps, or maybe the film simply doesn’t work for most people. Either way, the word out of Sundance was bad. Many critics were quick to argue Ferrell – capable of drama in films like Stranger Than Fiction, but more naturally inclined toward broad comedy – had been badly miscast as the husband who abandons his family and then tries his best to pretend it never happened. Others lumped Downhill in with the embarrassingly long line of failed American remakes of superior international films, using the film’s premiere as an opportunity to argue why everyone should just watch Force Majeure instead.
Indeed, Downhill arriving so soon after Bong Joon-ho’s instantly legendary Golden Globes quote – “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films” – is not a good look for all involved. Of course, we do live in a world of nuance. Case in point: Joon-ho himself is now co-producing an American TV show remake of Parasite. Still, the historical evidence was on the side of the critics here.
So, I took their advice and watched Force Majeure, which alternates between stretches of English dialogue and subtitled French, Swedish, and Norwegian. I’d heard of the film years ago and always thought of its premise as an indie film version of this famous Seinfeld moment:
This was my first time seeing Force Majeure, though. As the director Ruben Ostlund has since repeated with his 2017 Oscar-nominee The Square, he has an obvious knack for satire and cringe-comedy. Force Majeure, especially, plays out as a series of conversations where no one, other than maybe the wife, is saying what they actually mean until the dam finally bursts at a wildly combustible dinner party straight out of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The film has a lot to say about masculinity and cowardice, so much so that the central couple’s (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli) slow-moving fight eventually infects friends of theirs (Game of Thrones Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius) which results in one of the all-time great movie scenes of a couple’s innocent bedside conversation evolving into a relationship-threatening fight. The destination, however, always seems obvious: the husband will eventually own up to what he did. The question is what the wife will do in response. Her position of moral authority, however, takes a beating in the film’s surprise, black comedy ending.
What’s almost immediately obvious about Downhill, by comparison, is that Julia Louis-Dreyfus produced it. As her entire career has illustrated, Force Majeure’s cringe comedy is completely in her wheelhouse, but Force Majeure is a scenario/thought experiment kind of film about what happens to a rather generalized couple with two small children in a prolonged crisis. Downhill asks, however, what do these people, named Billie and Pete, do for a living? Why are they even there? What motivated them to take the ski trip in the first place? How different would it be if the children were old enough to truly process the emotions of being abandoned by their father?
To put it another way and anyone with any acting experience should say this with me: what’s their motivation?
This doesn’t mean Downhill drastically deviates from the original plot. The two films hit all of the same story beats. The inciting incident avalanche is lifted practically shot-for-shot from Force Majeure. The mid-movie fight where the wife finally unloads on the husband in front of increasingly uncomfortable friends plays out much the same way, ultimately serving as the dramatic centerpiece of the story.
But we do learn quite a bit more about the character backstories than we ever do in Force Majeure. For example, Billie is a lawyer, Peter – Ferrell’s character – recently lost his father which has plunged him into a mid-life crisis, and they had kids later in life, enduring multiple rounds of in-vitro fertilization to make it happen.
To the critics, that’s all evidence of the Americanization of the plot. They took something whose brilliance was its simplicity and universality and turned it into an audience hand-holding story. There is some truth to that. Force Majeure’s final climactic moments, for example, trade in ambiguity whereas Downhill splits the difference. It opts for a completely new, but arguably more ambiguous ending but precedes it with a climactic moment on the slopes that spells everything out which Force Majeure left to the audience to fill in.
So, points for Force Majeure.
However, Louis-Dreyfus clearly turned this into more of a starring vehicle for herself, giving her version of the wife far more to do than her Swedish counterpart. This opens Billie up to a wider range of emotions and ultimately some really bad decisions. Plus, it’s clearly not lost on Louis-Dreyfus that she and Ferrell are a fair deal older than the couple from the original and that being an American couple on a ski vacation in Austria is a fair bit different than being a Swedish couple skiing in France.
These differences are reflected in the script, and I actually found that fascinating. At one point, Billie is told by a younger woman that if their roles were reversed and she was the one whose husband left her to die in an avalanche she’d divorce his ass so fast he wouldn’t even know what hit him. It’s the first time in the film that anyone has told Billie she is entitled to her anger, which she clearly appreciates, but after that registers on her face she pauses a beat and asks: “How old are you?” The woman sitting next to her is 30. Billie is somewhere in her 50s and didn’t become a mother until later in life. Moral lines are not quite so absolute for her anymore, she thinks.
As in Force Majeure, Billie grows so annoyed with Pete that she takes a day to ski on her own. Unlike Force Majeure, however, she – spoiler – almost has an affair on that day. Thanks to the scheming of a perpetually-hot-to-trot quasi-friend played by Miranda Otto, Billie is set up with a hot, young ski instructor who offers, shall we say, extra services to lonely wives. His seduction works, at first. They briefly make out in a secluded cabin together, but Billie stops the encounter there. The experience leaves her so hot and bothered that she heads to the nearest bathroom and jills herself off. When is the last time you saw a nearly 60-year-old actress do that on-screen?
To many, this is a needless complication that contributes to the sense that neither party in the scenario is all that likable. By Louis-Dreyfus’ way of thinking, as she has explained in numerous interviews, it makes the film more interesting because it allows the actors messier moral footing. If it’s just guys vs. girls and the guys are clearly wrong, that’s not as interesting. I took it as a fascinating example of Louis-Dreyfus looking for a more textured version of a wife than Ruben Ostlund ever bothered to develop. Why should the husband’s have the exclusive on bad choices and mid-life crises?
On the other side of the story, however, Will Ferrell does seem a bit at sea with Pete. The fact that he’s almost old enough to be Zach Wood’s father adds weird energy to their scenes (they play co-workers who meet up on the slopes) when they have their own day together while Billie babysits the kids. It might also be simply his mid-life crisis and masculinity check simply doesn’t play as interesting or new in the story as Billie’s mix of simmering rage and bad decisions.
Not that most people care. Downhill had its window to matter as a movie people will talk about, and that window crashed as fast as Will Ferrell fleeing an oncoming avalanche. I’ve just spent nearly 2,000 words talking about this movie, and from an SEO standpoint, my time would have been much better spent writing about virtually anything else. But, dangit, Downhill is the mountain I’m willing to die on, avalanche and or no avalanche. Apparently.