Published Feb 14, 2020Bong Joon-ho spent much of awards season urging North Americans to stop being such babies about subtitles and open their minds to the world of international films. Then Parasite won the Oscar for Best Picture, and was the first subtitled film to ever do so. Enter an avalanche of think-pieces, and perhaps it was really true — maybe broader audiences really are ready to open their minds to something other than drawled American accents.
That provides an interesting context for Downhill, an entirely unnecessary and painfully mediocre English-language remake of Ruben Östlund's subtly devastating 2014 art-house comedy Force Majeure. The film, which got under audiences' skin with its stunning cinematography and complex portrayal of relational resentment, has had all of its complexities bashed down to make way for a shitty family comedy that you'll throw on in the background while you fold your laundry and scroll through your phone.
The American version stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie and Will Ferrell (who also tried to do a similar anglicized hack job on Toni Erdmann, which thankfully fell through) as Pete. They're a pair of overworked, overpaid yuppies who attempt to reconnect with one another and their two boys through a fancy trip to the Alps. When Pete attempts to save his phone before his family in a potential disaster scenario, however, the pricey trip is cast with a dark pall.
To be sure, Louis-Dreyfus makes the most of what she's been given and demonstrates some plausible emotional complexity, but it often feels like she's acting in an entirely different movie. Ferrell's likability is beginning to wear off after at least a decade drought from appearing in a good movie, so despite his childlike behaviour, he still seems a little dead inside onscreen. There are moments of levity, but nothing that compares to Östlund's original.
Downhill has a writing credit from Peep Show and Succession mastermind Jesse Armstrong, but don't expect any of his razor-sharp wit or emotional complexity. The tone falls closer to the output of co-writers and co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the jock with the teeth from Friends from College and the annoying dean from Community, respectively), who have sanded away any nuance in favour of brightly shot, laugh-less comedy that might make you gently smirk or nod in agreement from time to time.
That'd be fine if they had bothered to write any jokes. After all, maybe what Ferrell needs to jumpstart his career again is another big, dumb comedy, and if they were going to destroy Östlund's movie, they may as well have turned it into one of those horned-up screwball ski hill movies from the '80s. Instead, Faxon and Rash have concocted a painfully boring rip of a surprisingly deep premise.
Perhaps, then, we should be grateful that Parasite is warming North American audiences up to subtitles so that these shitty remakes can become a thing of the past. Then again, there's another layer of irony to the whole situation: Will Ferrell's former producing partner Adam McKay is currently working on an English language Parasite adaptation for HBO.