Downhill (2020) Review

A BORING AND UNEVEN

SLIPPERY SLOPE OF A MOVIE


 

Hollywood has always been fascinated with remakes; a profitable market of retooling and repurposing older ideas into new ways for a theatrical motion picture, with a new “vision” for modern audiences to enjoy. For the past two decades, the census idealism from “Tinseltown” is that of revisiting these older properties has become the “new norm”, with many film studios pushing out revamped narratives that have been previous done, but adding new cinematic twists. Recently, Hollywood has taken ideas from foreign movies and trying to “modernize” the feature film for a more “American” audience, with edgier grit / violence, updating the material, and adding recognizable actors and actresses for the various characters in each endeavor. This list highlights several movies of late, including 2011’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (a remake of the Swedish 2009 film of the same name), 2019’s The Upside (a remake of the French 2011 film The Intouchables), and 2019’s Cold Pursuit (a remake of the Norwegian 2014 film In Order of Disappearance) just to name a few. Now, Searchlight Pictures (i.e. the first film to be released under the studios new name following Disney’s acquisition of Fox Studios) and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash release the dark comedy drama film titled Downhill, a remake of 2014’s motion picture Force Majeure. Does the film find a new medium balance from its original source material or is it another unnecessary remake from Hollywood?

THE STORY


Trying to give his family a once in a lifetime vacation, Pete Staunton (Will Ferrell) has flown his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their two kinds, Emmerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) and Finn (Julian Grey) to an Austrian ski resort, eager to tackle the Alps various mountain slopes and enjoy the luxury hotel and its amenities. During their stay, while the family sits outside at restaurant, a planned avalanche occurs, with the resort removing excess snow off the mountain. The Stauntons aren’t aware of the routine, immediately scared of the situation and having Pete hastily run off for safety, leaving Billie and their kids in a state of shock. Unable to fully discuss the situation and their issues as a marital couple, Pete and Billie begin an uneasy situation war during their vacation getaway, with Billie trying to make sense of her anger and frustration, while Pete goes into denial to protect his masculinity as a man / father around a co-worker, Zach (Zach Woods), and his girlfriend, Rosie (Zoe Chao). Unable to communicate and to fully digest the circumstance of what happen, Pete and Billie take off on separate journey; trying to reevaluate their connections to their significant other.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


As stated above, the big power house studios that make up Hollywood’s current roster motion pictures for the past decade or so has been immersed in “reconnecting” viewers with old properties; churning out plethora of remakes and reboots. This, of course, goes without saying that Hollywood has certainly run out of original ideas; looking to what has worked in the past as well as looking towards adaptations (be video game or literary formats) for inspirations (might have to do a blog on that in the future). Nevertheless, it’s quite clear that Hollywood isn’t much interested in producing original motion pictures that much; choosing to find what worked (previously) and trying to “modernize” for a new moviegoing audience. The films that I mentioned above are the exactly what this means, with many film studios picking older movie titles (some being international releases) and trying to make the feature appeal for the American audience (aka the large component consumer in the worldwide box office number results), with plenty of nuances that accompany fanfare. However, there is little to no reason to remake a project with the original (more often that not) being superior iteration of the story being told.

This brings me back to talking about Downhill, a 2020 feature film that is based on the 2014 Norwegian film Force Majeure. I’ll be straight up with you guys (my readers) that I haven’t seeing Force Majeure. So, my review is gonna be purely based on the film Downhill and not so much on what was changed, added, or removed between the two films. That being said, I did read the synopsis of the 2014 film. Looking past that, I really didn’t hear much about this when Downhill was first announced. Heck, I didn’t even see the film’s movie trailer when I went to my local theater for my weekly movie outings. I vaguely remember hearing about it when it premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival as well as a nod to the film when Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus when they presented together during the 2020 Oscars. From what I heard (about the movie) from advanced reviews, it was mostly negative reviews about the film, which isn’t a good thing. However, I still wanted to see if those reviews were true and not just slander a feature film. So, I decided to check out the movie a few weeks after its release and I went into it, more or less, blinded; having not watch the film’s trailer nor did much research on Force Majeure. I just knew who it starred in the lead roles and it had something to with a marriage and taking place at a ski resort. What did I think of the film? Well, not good. Despite having a slick setting / presentation and a somewhat underlining commentary message, Downhill is such an awkward and boring movie that has a clear case of “mistaken identity”; struggling to find a narrative strong for its deeper meaning context. The intent is crystal clear, but it ends up being shallow, confusing, and haphazard to the touch.

Downhill is directed by directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose previous collaboration works includes directing the film The Way Way Back as well as writing the screenplay for The Descendants. Given their various collaborations together (as well as their previous endeavors in writing and acting), Faxon and Rash make Downhill another striving endeavor, with more pomp (and the circumstance) of having two well-known acting talents in the lead role (Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus) as well as having the opportunity of adapting an international feature film into one that more “modernize” Hollywood appeal to an American moviegoing audience. The result isn’t exactly a good one (more on that below), but, at the very least, its an admirable attempt. More to the point, the movie does reveal a few moments of going deep within its thematically story; exposing a rocky situation of a marriage relationship and how a single incident could potentially damage a relationship (i.e. snowballing into something bigger). The film could’ve definitely expanded on this idea, but (suffice to say) the groundwork for the film’s main plot is there, but that’s mostly thanks to Force Majeure and not so much Downhill’s contributor filmmakers.

From a visual standpoint, Downhill’s presentation is pretty and perhaps one of the big positives that the film has gone for it. Naturally, the film’s setting is quite breathtaking; sporting a plethora of picturesque shots of the mountainous winter wonderland retreat, with the movie actually being filmed in Austria during its principal photography. Thus, I really do have to thanks the various “behind the scenes” team, including Florian Reichmann (art direction), David Warren (production design), and Kathleen Felix-Hager (costume designs) for making the film’s visual background appeal standout. It’s not absolutely perfect, but it gets the job done and shines the best in the movie (and that’s wholly a good thing). Plus, the cinematography work by Danny Cohen definitely has some cool and slick scenes that scattered throughout; offering up some interesting and picturesque moments in the movie’s wintry setting. Additionally, the film’s score, which was done by Volker Bertelmann, is pretty good. It’s not the most dynamic and orchestral “must hear” composition piece of film soundtrack, but its definitely a nice touch and certain scenes of the nearby snow-capped mountain vicinity compliments Bertelmann’s score in an peaceful way.

Unfortunately, Downhill stumbles greatly more than takes in strides and unemphatically never gets understanding of what the type of story / movie it wants to be; creating a perplexing motion picture from onset to conclusion. For starters, the biggest point of criticism that I have for the movie is that its absolutely boring. Despite the fundamentals that it tries to preach of marriage and relationship (and the decisions that we make), the film never comes into its own and never actually settles into a nice rhythm. Thus, the overall direction of the feature feels quite haphazard, with the duo direction of Faxon and Rash perplexingly have a difficult time to ultimately shaping the motion picture the right way. The staging of everything is there (with the intent behind it), but the overall execution of literally everything is quite odd. That’s the truth about Downhill. Everything about the movie is odd and awkward, with not much going on except for a few scenes of either comedy / drama moments that play out more like TV sitcom skits. As a whole, Faxon and Rash struggling to find a happy “medium” balance of the two genres its striving for; making Downhill to have an uneven tone throughout the movie. To make matters worse, the film’s pacing is quite off. Yes, the movie is relatively short with a runtime of only 86 minutes long (one hour and twenty-six minutes), but the film feels quite longer than that. That’s because nothing about the is snappy or tightly woven together; finding Faxon and Rash meandering through elongated scenes that either struggle to get its point across (in a timely manner) or just feel completely unnecessary. All of this makes Downhill unappealing, with a sort of quirky oddball feeling that permeates throughout the entire film, but feels hollow and completely awkward.

In truth, Downhill struggles as to what it wants to be, which (again) stems from Faxon and Rash’s direction for the film, but also from the feature’s script. Of course, with the movie being based on Force Majeure’s script by Ruben Östlund, Downhill’s script is penned by Faxon and Rash as well as Jesse Armstrong and never comes into its own; failing to realize what it wants from the story and how it wants to be presented within Faxon and Rash’s direction for the feature. Thus, the result is something that feels quite hollow and rather dull by dragging its feet throughout much of the movie’s runtime and never really feeling enticing. There are some funny bits of comedy that are peppered throughout the narrative in by ways and means of trying to employ a little bit of levity in the film’s proceedings, but all of them fall completely flat. To be honest, I rarely laughed in the movie. A few times, yes, but it was more of those slight chuckles that I thought were amusing. Some out there might get the comedy, but (to be honest) it’s one of those quirky off-beat material types that doesn’t quite work, especially when juxtaposing against such a gravitas situation of a somewhat ungluing of a relationship between two individuals. Thus, the comedy ultimately doesn’t work and just feels quite dull, flat, and uninspiring right from the get-go. I know it trying to be a “dark comedy” of some kind, but it falls to achieve that in any way shape or form. In conjunction with that, the dramatic aspect of the movie never going beyond the surface level; presenting some heavy-handed material to toil around with (emotionally charged), but never really going beyond to the actual “meaty” parts of the aspect. There’s so much that Downhill could’ve explored and expanded on that it’s almost insulting to us (the viewers) that the project didn’t choose to make the feature have more substance. Instead, the movie gets a half-baked follow through in its conception / direction with a glossy polish from Hollywood. Nothing about the movie is found remarkable, memorable, or even good. This also extends to the film’s ending, which completely left with an unsatisfying way to end the feature. There’s a somewhat resolution, but all feels quirky, cheap, and awkward…. almost as if they (they being the writers) couldn’t come up with a proper ending and either ran out of time or money. Thus, all of this makes Downhill lacking in almost all areas of importance; projecting a rather bland and shallow story that lacks substance and directorial finesse; completely missing an opportunity for something truly unique.

Additionally, with Downhill being totted as a remake, this brings up the main question as to why it needed to be made in the first place. I mentioned at the beginning of the review of The Upside and Cold Pursuit, both movies that I saw but not their original version of which they were based on. These two films (as well as Downhill) are prime examples of Hollywood rehashing older properties, but to lesser effect; trying desperately hard to “glorifying” a cinematic tale with a touch of Hollywood money and standing power. The end result, however, usually turns out to be the opposite, with Downhill being the dead-on ringer of why the Hollywood industry should stop trying to remake something that doesn’t really need to be made and sprinkling a more “American style” nuances can’t hide the fact of a lackadaisical and dull feature.

The cast in Downhill is spearheaded by comedian talents from actor Will Ferrell and actress Julian Louis-Dreyfus, which have had a good run in their respective careers and having many memorable performances / roles throughout. Unfortunately, Downhill isn’t one of their better career choices as both talents struggle to find a balanced medium in their portrayals of Pete and Billie Staunton. Of the two, Louis-Dreyfus, known for her roles in Seinfeld, The New Adventure of Old Christine, and Veep, is the better equipped to handle such a character; making her portrayal of Billie Staunton a bit more compelling that her male co-star lead. Louis-Dreyfus has a better acting range and definitely showcases that throughout the film’s narrative (i.e. frustration, confusing, shock, angry, etc.), which gives Billie the most dynamic character range of the entire film. In the comedy aspect of Downhill, however, Louis-Dreyfus is okay, with the resulting works of talents playing up her quirk dialogue moments (akin to something to Veep), but none of it really makes a laughable impression and just adds up to the whole tasteless production of the movie. Still, I do have to give her credit for at least trying and putting the effort in as most of the film’s problems with Billie stem from the movie’s direction and its script rather than her performance.

On the other hand, Ferrell, known for his roles in SNL, Elf, and Anchorman, is a total miscast in the role of Pete Staunton. To his credit, I do give him applause for trying something different, which is probably why he choose to star in the film; giving Pete Staunton a bit more “confusing” persona as a man who is struggling with a sort of middle-life crisis that he faces with his family. However, Ferrell just doesn’t have the right amount of theatrical drama talents to make Pete “come alive” on-screen. To be honest, it’s a bit honest to see Ferrell trying to be more serious….as admirable as it might be. Even worse, the comedy aspect that Ferrell tries to project is weak and unfunny. Despite having a great career in the comedy realm of various character roles and comedy endeavors, Ferrell (over the past decade or so) has become increasingly less funny and Downhill pinpoints that detail. Granted, the movie doesn’t fully allow Ferrell to flex his comedic style, but what he gives doesn’t work and just becomes lackadaisical and just downright unfunny. In a nutshell, Ferrell’s portrayal of Pete Staunton is too wooden and ridged to make a lasting impression or to even care about him.

More to the point, neither Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus have good on-screen chemistry with each other. The only thing that they share in common is that their comedy acting background…and that’s about it. Thus, it’s extremely hard to fully buy into anything relationship-wise of their portrayals of Bille and Pete, which (again) is the emotional crux of the project. To put it simply, they don’t pair well together in the way that the movie wants them to be….and that’s not a good thing.

Sadly, the young acting talents of Ammon Jacob Ford (SEAL Team and 9-1-1) and Julian Grey (Godless and A World Away) are woefully undeveloped in the roles as Bille and Pete’s two kids, Emmerson and Finn Staunton. I’m not saying that there acting skills are bad or anything like that, but rather how they are presented in the movie, with the characters being somewhat important to the narrative, especially being the children of Billie and Pete, but seem to be rather thinly written into the script. This, of course, rendered a lot of their involvement in the feature’s story frustrating as the film does center around them (for large portions), but neither two Staunton sibling feel fully developed and comes off as simple caricatures, which (again) feels like something is lacking in character development for such a meaningful context that centers around Downhill’s main plot.

The only side character that was memorable in Downhill was the character of Charlotte, a resort / hotel employee that comes across Billie and Pete several times in the movie. Played by actress Miranda Otto (The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Thin Red Line), the character does provide to be the most noticeable in the film, which is due to her vocal opinions of sex; spewing out random dialogue lines that are meant to be funny. However, while Otto does what she can in the role, the character just seems awkward and only exacerbates the tonal imbalance that the film has throughout. Thus, Charlotte feels quite “out of place” in this dramedy type figure; never really fully belonging anywhere and only comes across as a comedic side character. Still, looking past that, she does feel a longer impression that either Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do in Downhill.

The rest of the cast, including actor Zach Woods (Silicone Valley and The Office) as Zach, actress Zoe Chao (Where’d You Go, Bernadette and Strangers) as Zach’s young companion Rosie, actor Giulio Berruti (Walking on Sunshine and Monte Carlo) as ski instructor Guglielmo, and actor Kristofer Hivju (Game of Thrones and Fate of the Furious) as unnamed ski safety official, are all delegated to minor supporting players in the movie and none of them make a “lasting impression”. Well, maybe Hivju does (because I’m a fan of him from Game of Thrones), but he only had one scene in the movie….and it was only part I laughed at…in the entire film.

FINAL THOUGHTS


A vacation trip mishap shakes up the relationship between a husband and wife; forced to reexamine how to procced in the film Downhill. Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash latest film translates the concept idea from the 2014 film Force Majeure and modernizes it for an American audience; offering a new “cinematic” face-lift to the narrative. Unfortunately, that translation doesn’t go according to plan, with film being riddled with numerous and glaring problems, especially in its awkward direction, uneven tone, flat script, confusing moments, mediocre performances, uninteresting characters, and an unsatisfying ending. Personally, I didn’t care for this movie. In fact, I hated this movie. True, the story definitely had an interesting hook and could’ve actually led somewhere by delving into some true theatrical drama between a married couple (something like Revolutionary Road or Marriage Story). However, the squanders its chance and just creates a confusing and totally boring movie from start to finish; glossing over much of it with perplexing characters moments and tonal genre bits that clash with each other. Thus, as you can imagine, my recommendation for this movie is a hard and definitive “skip it” as there’s very little reason to watch this movie. Nothing about this movie was remarkable and it was just a shallow experience…. from start to finish. As a remainder, I haven’t seeing Force Majeure (as for yet), but I think I should’ve watched that particular film instead of this one. In the end, Downhill is just simply a faulty project that never gets off the ground; struggling to find the comedy and drama within its shallow narrative as well as lacking a wholesome substance within its boring presentation, and an entertainment value within its perplexing existence. In short, the film just falls disastrously flat…. repeatedly!!!

1.3 Out of 5 (Skip It)

 

Released On: February 14th, 2020
Reviewed On: February 23rd, 2020

Downhill  is 86 minutes long is rated R for language and some sexual material

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