Review – This Movie Pretty Much Goes… (“Downhill”)

The U.S. film market has had a longstanding tradition of taking foreign movies and translating them into English-speaking Hollywood remakes (The Upside, The Grudge, Cold Pursuit, Miss Bala) and the results have NOT been good! Why is it done? One word. Money!

Hitting most of the marks from its Swedish predecessor, we meet the family Stanton from America visiting the Austrian Alps on vacation. Attorney Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is the staunch mom trying to take care of her grieving husband, Pete (Will Ferrell) who just lost his father. Along with their two young teen sons, Finn & Emerson (Julian Grey & Ammon Jacob), they’re not exactly having the times of their lives at their luxury hotel. Although Charlotte (Miranda Otto), the openly promiscuous hotel hostess, is a hoot and good for a few laughs.

On the second day, a controlled avalanche goes terribly wrong and the Stanton’s, dining outdoors, gets blasted with a frightening amount of snow powder. In the excitement, Billie protects her kids while Pete grabs his precious cellphone and bolts; not a good move. Moments later, after everything has settled down, Pete returns acting as if nothing happened. But Billie & the kids know something has happened and dad is sorta ‘Facebook blocked’. Admitting to nothing, Pete shys away from the incident, even at dinner with Charlotte and her newest boy-toy. A chat with the local mountain patrol (Kristofer Hivju, co-star in Force Majeure) doesn’t help much either.

But it all comes to head when Pete’s free-wheeling friends, Zach & Rosie (Zach Woods & Zoe Chao) come for a visit and Billie can no longer contain her anger towards Pete. The next few days are torture as Pete attempts to glean any attention towards his wife & kids, while Billie goes off on a “solo day”, almost having a fling with an Italian ski instructor (Giulio Berruti), who looks like he stepped off a G Q magazine. But will this once sorta-happy couple, having gone downhill, find any common ground even if Pete reconciles with Billie?

The screenplay by Jesse Armstrong (Four Lions), along with newbie directors Nat Faxon & Jim Rash (Community TV series) hit a serious snag early on. Tone. The original Swedish movie (Force Majuere) was a drama with almost no comedy in it at all, while this movie strives to be a little of both, but the two don’t mesh well. No doubt, Julia & Will are incredible at what they do and it shows in certain scenes, but the tonal shifts are jarring at best. Either be just a drama or a comedy. Pick one! Armstrong writes well for both drama and comedy, but slamming them together? Uh… no. That doesn’t work here.

While the original film made you feel embarrassed, uncomfortable, and heart-broken for the couple, you don’t get that from Billie & Pete. Given the subject matter, if you’ve seen the original movie, this could have been spun into a full-on comedy. It was right there for the taking! However the movie isn’t a total loss; you have Julia and Will doing some great dramatic acting, something you don’t get to see very often. Just watch Julia’s facial expressions; her looks alone without any dialogue is a study in master-class acting. She conveys SO MUCH without saying a thing!

Ferrell does what he can here, but his forte is truly comedy. It’s unfortunate that the two aren’t exactly lighting up the screen as a couple, but they do have some great moments together. It’s also another unfortunate casualty of this movie the direction is sloppy, given the talents of both Faxon & Rash. It looks rushed and amateurish, especially the ski gondola scenes.

Force Majeure (2011)

It means “a greater force” and, coming from Sweden, you better put your reading glasses because this movie’s got subtitles! Told like the recent Marriage Story or Carnage, we are witness to the disintegration of a marriage, and all because of a hiccup that occurs on a family vacation.

In the beautiful stark white and bleak French Alps, a Swedish family is having a grand ol’ time swooshing down the fine packed powder and staying at the local luxury resort hotel. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is the loving dad to his kids, Vera & Harry (real-life brother & sister, Clara & Vincent Wettergren), and his doting wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), is fascinated with a women staying in the hotel that is having multiple affairs. Everything is going great, but on the second day of their vacation, they face a severe set-back.

The hotel’s controlled avalanche program goes off and, while the family is having lunch outdoors on the deck of a restaurant, a huge snow cloud rises up and overtakes them, threatening to wipe out everyone on the deck. Everyone panics, but while Ebba shields and protects her children, Tomas grabs his cellphone and runs away! As the cloud clears and no one is hurt, Tomas returns, pretending that nothing has happened. But it’s clear that something HAS happened!

That evening at dinner with some new friends, Ebba re-tells the avalanche story, but Tomas insists he did not run away from the table, citing that HE remembered the incident differently. As you might expect, tensions mount as the subject matter goes unspoken… that is until Ebba gets drunk at another dinner party with close friends, Fanni and Mats (Fanni Matilius & Kristofer Hivju). She reveals in heart-breaking detail the events of that afternoon, while you can see Tomas been ripped apart. Fanni takes Ebba’s side as Mats, being friends with Tomas, tries his best to explain his friend’s cowardice in scientific terms

Finally, after days of being a dick and denying his actions, Tomas breaks down and admits his failings as a human, as a person, and as a husband. In a curious scene later, Tomas ‘rescues’ Ebba who may–or may not have been–lost and injured in the snow. And equally odd final scene follows, never really telling us whether or not Tomas and Ebba reconciled. Written & directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, whose body of work is mostly short films & documentaries, this powerful and though-provoking movie was inspired by him watching several viral YouTube videos of similar events.

For someone who’s only done short films & doc’s, Ruben really knows how to make you feel uncomfortable. Just watching these two people after the avalanche incident and the way they avoid/not avoid each other is nervously entertaining. Kuhnke is a handsome a-hole who can’t accept that he’s a loser and coward, yet you feel for him in some small measure, while Kongsli keeps her head together when you just want her to scream bloody murder at her hubby for being an idiot. Ruben shot these awkward and claustrophobic scenes beautifully, making you wince with emotion. Yeah, good stuff here.

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