“Force majeure” refers to unforeseen acts that can prevent the fulfillment of a legal contract. In the case of Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film of that name, it refers to the unpredictable behavior of a man—a husband, a father—in the face of unexpected danger that could threaten to completely overturn his marriage and his own perception of himself. In Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s 2020 film Downhill, the title is a pun on downhill skiing and a marriage on the decline.
Downhill is “inspired,” as the credits tell us, by Force Majeure, and it takes what is a trenchant meditation on instinct, on the institution of marriage, on masculinity and flattens it into an awkward comedy about mid-life crisis and stale married life.
In the film, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Pete (Will Ferrell), and their two children go on holiday in the Alps. A vacation meant for skiing and R&R quickly turns sour when a controlled avalanche barrels towards the family as they breakfast on a patio overlooking the slopes. As snow cascades in their direction, Billie huddles her children under her arms, and Pete grabs his phone and bolts out of sight. When it becomes evident that the snow posed no real threat, Pete awkwardly saunters back over, leaving Billie to wonder what her husband’s action says about his commitment to her and their family.
The bare bones of Force Majeure remains in this Americanized rendition, but what is added and excised only deflates the power and tension Östlund’s film provides. The up-played notion of extra-marital affair, for one, is a lame attempt to gin up conflict, when the simple yet provocative conflict stemming from the controlled avalanche is more than adequate. The addition of a scene immediately following this inciting incident also, weirdly, subverts what had come before, complicating this simple conflict in an unproductive way. Finally, the lack of a crucial, tense sequence that takes place at the end of Force Majeure makes the finale of Downhill read utterly and unsatisfactorily simplistic.
Generally, I do not like to harp on the differences in adaptation, as I believe creative re-interpretation should not be discouraged. But every step of the way, the re-interpretation in Downhill reads almost as if Faxon and Rash failed to see the underlying tensions present in Force Majeure. All nuance is ironed out of this version, leaving an occasionally cringe-inducing but ultimately superficial commentary on marriage.
To give credit where it is due, Louis-Dreyfus does a fantastic job as Billie, delivering a couple of knockout monologues which elevate the material far above what it is on the page. Ferrell is also good in what is a grossly watered down version of the disgraced patriarch.
Ultimately, Downhill pales in comparison to its inspiration. Viewed in a vacuum, however, it is only worthwhile for two things: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and the film’s central premise. Outside of this vacuum, no one on this production can claim credit for this central premise. And the alterations which can be credited to Downhill are more detrimental than anything else.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)