Director: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Writers: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto
Genre: Comedy / Drama
After barely escaping an avalanche during a skiing holiday in which Pete (Ferrell) ran away and abandoned his wife Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and their two children, the couple’s life is thrown into disarray as they are all forced to re-evaluate how they feel about one another.
Yes, this may make me sound a little smug and pretentious, but the fact is that Ruben Östlund’s wonderfully dark comedy Force Majeure (review) was one of my favourite films of 2015. It is a delightfully subtle and nuanced black comedy, and I must confess that as soon as I heard that Will Ferrell was cast in the English language remake I was more than a little sceptical, as there are many superlatives that can be used to describe Will Ferrell’s acting style – but subtle and nuanced are certainly not anywhere near the top of that list!
I will try to refrain from blabbering on about how great Force Majeure was and try to analyse Downhill on its own terms and on its own merits. However, the main problem with that is that this is a film that has no merits; it is almost worth watching to see just how spectacularly it gets everything wrong, and Downhill not only completely misses the point about what made Force Majeure such a great and unique film, but it is also very much a complete disaster in its own right. Downhill will have to be yet another addition to the increasingly lengthy ‘films to forget’ list of Will Ferrell’s rather inconsistent filmography. This is a film certainly on a par with Holmes & Watson or Get Hard, albeit for different reasons.
From the performances to the script, there is nothing in Downhill that works. Indeed, it is almost impressive just how bad it is and gets all elements wrong! It seems quite clear that it tries to be a drama / comedy, but the characters are too poorly constructed and played for any kind of drama to work, while the attempts at comedy fail miserably and are completely misjuged. Irrespective of what the writers and actors do with it, the concept of a protagonist trying to reclaim his masculinity after an instinctual act of extreme cowardice is still interesting in its own right, but yet Downhill (at least it is an appropriate title – though admittedly for the wrong reasons) manages to make it completely unengaging.
The main characters are just very poorly written and impossible to engage with on any level, they don’t necessarily have to be completely likeable (indeed, flawed characters usually are the most interesting), but at least be compelling or have some relatable qualities, but the script and performances manage to completely annihilate this. What makes this even more disappointing is that the script is co-written by Jesse Armstrong, who has proven with his work on various films (Four Lions, In the Loop) and TV series (Peep Show¸ The Thick of It) that he can deliver great observational and subtle comedy that contains more than a hint of melancholy, but that is completely lacking in Downhill. Then of course there is no way of knowing how much influence he had in the script that was officially co-written with the two directors. Likewise, the camerawork and the editing are both very pedestrian, suggesting that that all involved realised early on that what they were making is dreadful, so they just tried to get it over with using as little effort as possible.
As the lead character Will Ferrell is hideously miscast; though he does admittedly in the main try to tone down his trademark manic shouting and provide a more subtle performance of emotional depth (he did prove in Stranger than Fiction that he can do this), but he just gets every delivery of dialogue or facial expression completely wrong. Whether this be due to lack of effort or him just not genuinely having the ability to pull of such a role, perhaps only he will ever know the true answer to that, but in Downhill he just comes across as creepy and completely unlikeable, and a character that spending 86 minutes with is a complete and utter chore. Despite that very short running time Downhill does actually feel a lot longer.
Unfortunately, Julia Louis-Dreyfus does not fare any better; she is undoubtedly a very talented performer that can do drama and comedy, but she also feels very miscast, and when watching her lacklustre performance it does almost seem that she knows that the script she is reciting and hearing others receipt is utterly abysmal. The two leads also have absolutely no chemistry, making it even more difficult to believe in the two protagonists or their relationship. There is also the bizarre decision to cast Miranda Otto as an eccentric Austrian (at least I think that is the accent she is going for) hotel owner, and her overacting is quite painful to watch and only further serves to make watching Downhill a truly arduous experience.
Downhill is yet another example of Hollywood complacency in thinking that they can just remake a great film without actually any kind of thought or effort, and the result is this detritus that suggests that all involved either didn’t watch the original or didn’t understand it, and worse still; they didn’t feel they had to make any kind of effort or have any creative thoughts of their own. Oh well, at least Will Ferrell is not involved in English language remakes of other great world cinema dark comedies such as Toni Erdmann or the 100-Year-Old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared! Oh…….
Irrespective of how good the original was (or indeed if an original even existed), whether it be the appalling script or miscasting, everything about Downhill is a spectacular failure, and the only thing they got right was the title – but probably not for the reasons they initially intended!
Should you want to torture yourself for 86 minutes, at time of writing Downhill is available to stream on various platforms.