Tropic Sprockets / Downhill

By Ian Brockway

“Force Majeure” by Ruben Östlund is a masterpiece of existentialism. In that film, the singer Johannes Bah Kuhnke plays Tomas, a passive husband wracked with guilt for not protecting his family from potential danger during vacation. Lisa Loven Kongsli is equally excellent as Tomas’ wife Ebba, who grows increasingly resentful. Half of the wonder of that film is its marvelous cinematography by Fredrik Wenzel with its sweeping blue and white views of the French Alps, as if Tomas and Ebba are distant astronauts on an obscure planet, barren and strange. Added to this is a striking and ominous tone reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick with its depictions of long hotel corridors and children who glare at their father in reproach.

Now we have the American remake of Östlund’s film, titled “Downhill” directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. The film closely mirrors the original in events but not in tone.

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis- Dreyfus are husband and wife on a ski trip, of course. Ferrell is exuberant but also preoccupied, a bit like Clark Griswold in the “Vacation” franchise. Dreyfus as the wife and mother is kind yet harried. The family has a full and happy morning on the slopes. 

Then they stop to eat at an outdoor cafe with a grand view.

The pivotal scene is done wonderfully containing an ample amount of the first film’s suspense. Suddenly, dad is absent in the ensuing panic, nowhere to be found. In this version, dad Peter nonchalantly walks back, sits down and orders soup, unfazed.

What follows is a gradual withdrawal from Billie. Where Tomas is eaten up from the inside in the 2014 film, Ferrell’s Peter is clueless and incredulous. This is a kind of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” take on Östlund’s great work.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ portrayal is the strongest of the two. Her resentment has real force while still possessing some comic timing. Ferrell’s range within the film, just doesn’t change beyond either a mania or a stunned disbelief. Kuhnke’s performance was so nuanced in the original, it makes this version seem flat.

It is fun to see the actor Kristofer Hivju who played Peter’s friend in the first film. Here, instead of being mild mannered, he plays a taciturn and blunt customer service supervisor.

Overall, the visual potency of the initial film is dispensed with in favor of embarrassing situations: a libidinous and bossy concierge, a Don Juan ski-instructor and a cringing dad who is then poker faced or feverish with his frat-type bro (Zach Woods).

As a conceptual exercise, “Downhill” works fine. It is only that the first film is so striking in its emotive power and apprehension that it turns its distant cousin to mere powder by comparison.

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