Downhill

downhillSTARS3.5I’ll let you in on a little secret.  Downhill is not a comedy.  It may appear to be one given the presence of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  It’s also from writing/directing duo—Jim Rash and Nat Faxon, who previously made the sweet summer comedy The Way Way Back.  Even the misguided marketing campaign promised frivolity by highlighting the amusing bits with lighthearted music underscoring the trailer.  As a result, hoodwinked audiences saddled the movie with a “D” Cinemascore.  Critics haven’t been very kind either.  I will confirm that this is an uncomfortable experience.  Yes, that much is true, but it’s also the entire point.  It is, in fact, a compelling profile of a marriage in free fall.

The Stauntons are an American family on a ski vacation in the Alps.  The plot is set in motion when an explosive charge sets off an avalanche that comes dangerously close to burying Mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Dad (Will Ferrell), and their two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) while having lunch on an elevated patio.  The shocking event is the impetus for an existential crisis.  The argument which ensues causes the married couple to reevaluate their relationship and how they feel about each other.

Downhill is a remake of Force Majeure, a Swedish film I adored in 2014.  One might argue that the picture was perfect and didn’t require a redo.  Downhill doesn’t achieve the same heights.  I’ll concede that.   Nonetheless, Faxon and Rash have done more than simply translate the dialogue.  They’ve shifted the focus away from the husband, whose fraying masculinity was the focus in the original.  Downhill is about the wife.  She must come to terms with a marriage that isn’t in great shape to begin with.  The avalanche exposes a rift that’s already there.  That’s different. 

There’s a distinction in the way the two protagonists interact with other people at the resort as well.  Casting Americans as opposed to Swedes contrasts Scandinavian and American identities within a French setting.  There’s a complete personality shift to this family that gives the proceedings a singular feel.  When Billie goes down to complain to the mountain safety patrolman (Kristofer Hivju – who was also in Force Majeure) about the way the controlled avalanche was handed by the hotel, the narrative heightens a culture-clash between Americans and Europeans that was not present in the original production.  There’s also Charlotte (Miranda Otto), an oversexed concierge and a suave ski instructor named Guglielmo (Giulo Berruti).   The contrast in their behavior with the Stauntons is a droll riff on American sensibilities.

However the #1 reason to see Downhill is a stellar performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as wife Billie Staunton.  It’s no wonder the actress currently has a record-breaking 8 Emmys, the most wins for any performer (she’s tied with Cloris Leachman).  It’s rare for the actress to do a theatrical feature so when she commits to a project like this, it’s something to cherish.  Her last was the delightful Enough Said in 2013.  Billie is a structured bundle of exasperation slowly coming apart at the seams.  To observe her is to witness the gradual shock of a woman that has been betrayed.  Downhill is indeed messy and awkward and hard to watch.  That’s part of the experience.  I get why audiences have savaged this movie.  If viewed through a lens of needing laughs, it will come up short.  This is no more a comedy than Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or Noah Baumbach’s more recent Marriage Story.  There are some funny bits to lighten the mood.  There is a certain humor in Pete’s character flaws or Billie’s irritation, but at heart, this is a portrait of pain.  It feels honest and genuine and that’s uncommon.  The achievement is something to champion.

02-18-20

2 Responses to “Downhill”

  1. Loved “Force Majuere “ so much, this failed in comparison, but still pretty good. Julia was the all star here. 3 stars

    Like

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