Ju­lia Louis-drey­fus and Will Fer­rell forgo yuks for an icky feel­ing in ‘Down­hill.’

Hol­ly­wood re­makes ‘Force Ma­jeure’ but ne­glects the nu­ance that made the orig­i­nal great

The Washington Post - - WEEKEND - BY MICHAEL O’SUL­LI­VAN michael.osul­li­[email protected]­post.com

The Swedish film “Force Ma­jeure” was one of the best movies of 2014. The al­most per­versely per­cep­tive dram­edy about the fis­sures that ap­pear (or were prob­a­bly al­ways there) in the re­la­tion­ship of a mar­ried cou­ple on a ski va­ca­tion wasn’t es­pe­cially funny, at least not ha-ha funny. But the at times darkly comic film was lit by flashes of hu­man be­hav­ior so rec­og­niz­able to any­one in a long re­la­tion­ship — wry one minute, wrench­ing the next — that a viewer might not know whether to laugh or cry. A win­ner at Cannes, it was a per­fect bal­ance of melan­cholic and san­guine hu­mors, with no room, or need, for im­prove­ment.

It is there­fore no sur­prise Hol­ly­wood had to re­make it.

The real sur­prise, how­ever, is that “Down­hill,” star­ring Will Fer­rell and Ju­lia Louis-drey­fus (who also has a pro­ducer credit), is re­spect­ful enough of the source ma­te­rial to avoid cheap laughs and main­tain the orig­i­nal tone of acer­bic hon­esty. It isn’t great. It’s a wa­tered-down ver­sion of the orig­i­nal, but it’s still pretty good: nei­ther wise nor pro­found, yet some­times smart and with sharp el­bows — es­pe­cially if you have noth­ing with which to com­pare it.

Fer­rell and Louis-drey­fus play Pete and Bil­lie Stan­ton, a mar­ried cou­ple who are va­ca­tion­ing in the Aus­trian Alps. With their two sons, they’re stay­ing in a fancy ski vil­lage, billed as the “Ibiza of the Alps” and geared to­ward par­ty­hearty adults, not par­ents of ram­bunc­tious tween boys. As it hap­pens, there’s a more ap­pro­pri­ate fam­ily-friendly re­sort a mere 20 min­utes away. This unfortunat­e book­ing by Pete — who throws money around like he’s try­ing to im­press people, or buy their af­fec­tion, in­clud­ing blow­ing $2,000 on an abortive day of some­thing called he­li­copter ski­ing — turns out to be only the first of a hand­ful of bad de­ci­sions on his part.

Dur­ing lunch one day on the out­door ter­race of a chalet-style restau­rant, a con­trolled avalanche is set off by the re­sort’s snow man­age­ment staff, leading to an im­pul­sive choice by Pete that he will in­stantly re­gret, and that will slowly, over the course of the film, start to eat away at the ve­neer of harmony and ci­vil­ity that the world sees when they look at the Stan­tons, re­veal­ing the weak­nesses be­neath.

“Down­hill” repli­cates many of the touches that made “Force Ma­jeure” so pow­er­ful, al­ter­nat­ing be­tween long, static im­ages of chilly snows­capes with more in­ti­mate scenes of heated psy­chodrama, and ratch­et­ing up that ten­sion with oc­ca­sional, gun­shot­like ex­plo­sions in the dis­tance that ac­com­pany the re­lease of pres­sure on the slopes by avalanche man­age­ment equip­ment. If there’s one thing that fans of the first film will miss, it’s the cav­ernous ar­chi­tec­ture of the orig­i­nal film’s ho­tel in­te­rior, which served to fur­ther iso­late and em­pha­size the small­ness of the cen­tral char­ac­ters.

In their roles, Fer­rell and Louis-drey­fus re­sist a nat­u­ral temp­ta­tion to mug for the cam­era, wisely choos­ing re­straint over re­lease. Their char­ac­ters aren’t quite as poignant as the cou­ple in “Force Ma­jeure,” but these two co­me­di­ans give the drama a go, ul­ti­mately find­ing an equi­lib­rium be­tween jokes — and frankly, there aren’t many of them — and the film’s some­times un­set­tling em­pha­sis on the more hard-toswal­low com­edy of awk­ward­ness.

“Down­hill” is, at heart, a story about two wildly dif­fer­ent in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the same event: one from the stereo­typ­i­cally fe­male per­spec­tive of a nur­tur­ing mama bear; and the other from the some­what more car­i­ca­tured point of view of the frag­ile, ego­tis­tic male — nicely em­bod­ied by the fleshy, feck­less Fer­rell. For fans of the ac­tor’s se­ri­ous roles (“Ev­ery­thing Must Go” be­ing a prime ex­am­ple), it’s a treat.

Just don’t ex­pect “An­chor­man’s” Ron Bur­gundy.

At times, the screen­play (cowrit­ten by Jesse Arm­strong and direc­tors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is overly ob­vi­ous, ham­mer­ing home the theme of mar­i­tal dis­cord. Amid all the squab­bling, there are ref­er­ences to tack­ling the “Beast” — the nick­name for the re­sort’s hard­est slope. And Bil­lie makes a crack at one point about going to Switzer­land, which comes across, in con­text, as a ref­er­ence to seek­ing neu­tral ground. Even the film’s ti­tle, “Down­hill,” makes lit­eral the state of some­thing in de­cline.

In one painfully un­com­fort­able scene, Bil­lie trots out the Stan­tons’ two sons (Ju­lian Grey and Am­mon Ja­cob Ford) so that the kids can cor­rob­o­rate, in front of the cou­ple’s guests (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao), Bil­lie’s ver­sion of events. She sends the boys to their ho­tel room to watch TV with the line: “Thanks, guys. You can go back to your funny movie.”

For us, there is no such op­tion. “Down­hill” has a few yuks, but for the most part, it cuts the com­edy, sub­sti­tut­ing that icky feel­ing that comes from be­ing trapped on a train, plane or bus, try­ing not to eaves­drop on the cou­ple in the next row. They aren’t exactly ar­gu­ing, but rather stew­ing in sim­mer­ing si­lence.

JAAP BUITENDIJK/TWEN­TI­ETH CEN­TURY FOX

From left, Will Fer­rell, Ju­lia Louis-drey­fus and Kristofer Hivju in “Down­hill,” a com­edy about a mar­ried cou­ple who are va­ca­tion­ing in the Aus­trian Alps with their two sons. It is a re­make of the 2014 Swedish film “Force Ma­jeure.”

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