Re­make loses edge but re­mains a strange, prickly piece

Toronto Star - - MOVIES - KATIE WALSH

Down­hill

K (out of 4) Star­ring Will Fer­rell, Ju­lia Louis­Drey­fus, Mi­randa Otto, Zach Woods and Zoe Chao. Di­rected by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. 86 min­utes. Opens Fri­day at GTA cin­e­mas. PG

Watch­ing Swedish di­rec­tor Ruben Ostlund’s deeply un­com­fort­able ab­sur­dist re­la­tion­ship drama “Force Ma­jeure,” one can’t help but think that this bleakly ob­tuse and ex­is­ten­tially un­bear­able film is the type that would never be green-lighted in the United States. So it’s a bit of a shock that the award-win­ning 2014 film has now been re­made in English as “Down­hill,” with beloved com­edy stars Ju­lia Louis-Drey­fus and Will Fer­rell, di­rected by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, who co-wrote the script with “Suc­ces­sion” cre­ator Jesse Arm­strong.

A “force ma­jeure” is a le­gal term re­fer­ring to nat­u­ral and un­avoid­able catas­tro­phes that ab­solve par­ties from ful­fill­ing any obli­ga­tions in­ter­rupted by said event.

That ti­tle is a bit more com­plex than “Down­hill,” but then again, so is ev­ery­thing about it. The themes that are un­spo­ken, ges­tured at and re­pressed in “Force Ma­jeure” are drawn out and made broad, ob­vi­ous and slap­stick in “Down­hill,” which spoon-feeds the lessons of the dark-ish com­edy and cuts short the plot for the eas­i­est-to-digest end­ing. Still, “Down­hill” re­tains the es­sen­tial DNA of “Force Ma­jeure,” and there­fore re­mains a strange and prickly piece of work.

The Stan­ton fam­ily, Bil­lie (Louis-Drey­fus), Peter (Fer­rell) and their two sons (Ju­lian Grey and Am­mon Ja­cob Ford) ar­rive for a lux­u­ri­ous ski va­ca­tion in the Alps, though it quickly be­comes a reck­on­ing of their iden­ti­ties, re­la­tion­ships and pur­pose. Dur­ing lunch on an out­door deck, the Stan­tons ob­serve a con­trolled avalanche on a nearby moun­tain­side. And as the cloud of snow bears down on them, Peter grabs his phone and runs, leav­ing his wife and sons clutch­ing each other in ter­ror.

In shock from the event and as­ton­ished at her hus­band’s ac­tions and his sub­se­quent de­nial of what he did, Bil­lie un­leashes an un­holy war of pas­sive ag­gres­sion against her hus­band, in the form of tense teeth­brush­ing, teary, wine-fu­eled ac­cu­sa­tions and jaunts on the slope with a hunky Ital­ian ski in­struc­tor.

Peter does his own soulsearch­ing, hang­ing with his much younger co-worker Zach (Zach Woods), drown­ing his shame in shots at the après-ski club and goad­ing his sons into dare­devil snow stunts.

Quite un­like “Force Ma­jeure,” “Down­hill” wants to offer ex­pla­na­tions and ra­tio­nal­iza­tions for why the Stan­tons are the way they are. Peter’s griev­ing his fa­ther and seems thrust into a midlife cri­sis, re­ly­ing on spon­ta­neous “carpe diem” thrills as a re­ac­tion to Bil­lie’s ag­gres­sive com­pe­tence, the kind of “can I speak to your man­ager”-style as­sertive­ness into which she mostly likely feels pi­geon­holed. As older par­ents, what they re­al­ize is while their in­di­vid­ual iden­ti­ties still need nur­tur­ing, there’s a de­gree of parental theatre and com­pro­mise re­quired to make the fam­ily unit run smoothly.

But all the pre-chewed sub­text doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily earn “Down­hill” a gold medal, as the de­gree of dif­fi­culty is so high. This is a chal­leng­ing film, star­ring co­me­di­ans in largely dra­matic roles, and tonal shifts filled with hair­pin turns. The big event hap­pens early and the rest is all, well, down­hill from there, as the avalanche draws out the big ques­tions about what it means to be in a fam­ily.

De­spite the Stan­ton’s fum­blings and short­com­ings, Faxon and Rash have a deep well of em­pa­thy, try­ing to ex­plain them, in the hopes that au­di­ences will em­pathize with these dif­fi­cult (and ul­ti­mately hu­man) char­ac­ters, too.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Ju­lia Louis-Drey­fus and Will Fer­rell star in “Down­hill,” a re­make of “Force Ma­jeure.”

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