When the same film is made twice in five years on opposite sides of the planet, comparisons are inevitable. The European produced Force Majeure (2014), reviewed here in June 2016, was a powerful psychological essay into what happens when the mask of ‘strong masculinity’ is shattered by an act of nature. Now the American made Downhill (2020) overlays the very same essay with clumsy humour, narrative confusion, and mediocre performances.
The simple core plot is identical in both films. A family of four are on an Austrian skiing vacation. They enjoy sweeping views from a restaurant balcony and watch a controlled avalanche for dislodging built-up snowfalls. To the mother’s horror, the avalanche accelerates at an alarming rate, and guests scream as the tsunami of snow threatens destruction. Terrified, the mother shelters her two offspring as the snow crashes on top of them. Without hesitation or even a glance at his family, the father runs away like a frightened rabbit. After several minutes, he returns with fake bravado, pretending it was nothing. In terms of impact on everyone, those few moments become everything.
While Force Majeure burrows deep into the psyche of shattered masculine identity, Downhill paints the incident with comic touches, to hide the fabricated patriarchal notions of manhood that imprison so many males. Scandinavian cinema treated the matter as serious by offering the unreconstructed male every chance at genuine redemption. American cinema on the other hand, forgives the momentary lapse, offering the hapless male every excuse for being a lying, selfish coward. The difference invites questions about national and cultural values.
The Downhill cast is not short on acting pedigree. As the runaway husband, however, Will Ferrell cannot rise above his background as a comedic actor and fails to give his role any depth. As a victim of a failing marriage to a shallow husband, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is wasted playing the aggrieved foil to Ferrell. Neither is likeable so it’s difficult for viewers to actually care about their failings. The only saving grace of Downhill is the visual beauty of the alps and the film’s relatively short run time of one hour and twenty-six minutes.
So why was this film even made when Force Majeure set such a high standard in telling the same story? Despite being labelled a ‘comedy drama’, the film offers little to laugh at. The narrative meanders and its only dramatic moment is gone when the avalanche settles. Then it’s all downhill to a limp ending. One plausible explanation for why the film was made might be the way it excuses a lying, self-centred, morally vacuous leading man. Sound like anyone you know?
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Stars: Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus