In the Showtime/BBC sitcom Episodes, a pair of British screenwriters are lured to America with the promise being able to remake their BAFTA award-winning sitcom, Lyman’s Boys. Arriving in LA, they are told that, to their horror, the show will be reshaped, retooled and repurposed into a cookie-cutter vehicle for Friends star Matt Le Blanc. To add insult to injury, the writers find out that their producer hasn’t even seen the show they’re hoping to remake.
That Golden Globe-winning series comes to mind quite a lot when watching Downhill, the latest comedy-drama from Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Way, Way Back). With a screenplay they wrote alongside Jesse Armstrong (Peep Show) and featuring a cast led by Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the whole shebang is credited as being inspired by Force Majeure from director Ruben Östlund (The Square). ‘Inspired’, here, seems to mean: We liked some scenes from the original, but don’t know how to stitch them cohesively together.
Like the original, Downhill follows a couple, Peter (Ferrell) and Billie (Louis-Dreyfus), on a skiing holiday with their two children. For mum the holiday is a chance to bond as a family, for dad the purpose appears to be emotionally more profound, coming as it does less than a year after his own father has passed. While dining alfresco, the family, along with a group of other holidaymakers, look destined to be crushed by an oncoming avalanche. In the ensuing panic, as Billie holds her children to her bosom, Pete grabs his iPhone and runs away, returning only once the coast is clear. This moment of fight or flight leads the couple to re-examine the very nature of their relationship.
Or at least, that appears to be the intention. In Östlund’s hands, the father’s sudden burst of self-preservation sets off an explosive dissection of fragile masculinity and ingrained gender roles, painted in a spectrum of grey. Downhill sets off a series of damp black and white squibs, where Peter and Billie avoid contact for the most part, and the audience is coerced into believing Peter is probably the real victim in all this. Sure, he left his family to die, but look at Billie! She doesn’t like him using his phone at the table and judges everyone she meets. Boo to the matriarchy!
This is a thoroughly toothless affair that misreads everything about what it’s basically trying to mimic. When Billie demeans herself simply to help her husband save face, it should be a comedically bitter moment, but it’s played as a lap of victory. Louis-Dreyfus is the best part about Downhill, and it’s frustrating to see her playing around in such shallow waters.
When it’s not just failing to say anything relevant or interesting, Downhill relies on comedy that sticks out like a sore thumb. While Ferrell respectfully stays in Everything Must Go mode rather than Anchorman, Miranda Otto turns up as an oversexed hotel manager whose only gimmick is to mine for comedy gold as a funny European. Actually, playing such a terrible stereotype, let’s replace the term mining with fracking.
It seems churlish to continually loop back to the film upon which Downhill is based, but there is simply no way around the fact that is no need to see this film where there is a much better version out there. It’s films like this that make you think that Parasite is going to end up being the inspiration for a Judd Apatow joint starring Paul Rudd and Katherine Heigl.
Coupled with clear signs of being mangled in the editing process after test audience screenings – Peter’s much hinted-at daddy issues come to naught – Downhill is an avalanche of disappointment.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★☆☆☆☆
‘Downhill’ is in Australian cinemas from March 5.