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'Downhill': It's all Relative
By Michael S. Goldberger, iBerkshires Film Critic
12:42PM / Friday, February 21, 2020
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"Downhill," an Americanized adaptation of Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund's "Force Majeure," a Golden Globe nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, doubtlessly lost something in the translation. Indeed, this variation on a comedy-drama about a family on an Alpine ski vacation evokes a smidgen of its Continental DNA. 
 
Yet, in taking its uncertain path to some hoped for humanistic revelation, it seems like it'd be much happier if only it could jump the tracks from classically cerebral comedy to safely domesticized farce.
 
Not to say that Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as the marrieds with issues just bursting to unravel don't give it as successful an old college try as the scenario will allow. But to quote a hobo I once met aboard a southbound freight I hopped, describing a French version of Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" he had recently seen in New Orleans, "They just didn't impart that je ne sais quoi."
 
Still, I suspect the plot's central bugaboo, meant to epitomize and hence hold the epiphanic key to the chronic dysfunction every family worth its weight in Sturm und Drang embraces, is as thought provoking in English as it is in Swedish. And, unless you've emanated from the picture-perfect world of the nuclear family as it was depicted in 1950s sitcoms, there are in this film niches of behavior and modes of coping that assure you are not alone in your experience.
 
But back on the negative side and open to discussion over dessert at your coffee table with the Lipschitzes, Jack and Maggie, following a viewing of this film and dinner at the diner, is how in heck did Louis-Dreyfus's Billie and Ferrell's Pete come to mate in the first place? But then, maybe that should be avoided. I never could see Jack and Maggie. Like Billie in the movie, Maggie, a lawyer, seems so well hinged, whereas like Pete, Jack is, well, kind of distracted … off somewhere else, you know? Is he committed to anything? But then again, more frequently than not, don't your friends' choice of partners totally befuddle you? I mean, how often have you driven home from another couple's house and one of you opines, "I don't get that relationship … not at all." And of course, the unspoken, self-satisfying rejoinder is, 'Yeah, not perfect like us.'
 
Pete, constantly online with a pal from work, expensive vacation atmosphere notwithstanding, seems more than a bit willy-nilly, leaving Mom to do the bulk of planning and parenting of their two boys. However, when a very close call with an avalanche exposes Dad's wimpiness, the elephant in the room can no longer be avoided. Channeling Tolstoy's quote from "Anna Karenina," asserting that "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," interaction among the four becomes burdensome and fraught with a dread of recrimination.
 
Still, in an unapologetic paean to the motherly dedication to the ties that bind, but probably more in the service of pragmatism than optimism, Billie invokes her lawyerly skills, hoping to salvage the nest she has constructed for her husband and the boys who'd rather be somewhere else.
 
Their teen take on the various shades of adult angst is eloquently evinced in a marathon rolling of the eyes.
 
A couple pieces of side business, one involving a handsome ski instructor (Giulio Berruti) who tantalizes the obviously neglected Billie, the other a free-living hotel manager (Miranda Otto) who flaunts her sexual exploits, buffer the intensity of the family drama. But although it seems like the story might at any minute swerve its way into the all-forgiving form of the broad comedy I had mistakenly expected in the first place considering the comedic reputation that precedes its principals, the damage is done.
 
While it would surely miff and befuddle the Saturday-night Cineplex crowd if this comedy-drama slipped into full, cinema verité tragedy, we aren't totally sure if some sort of pleasing accommodation can at least be hinted at if not achieved by the closing credits. Certainly we'd like to see some magical resolution exonerate Pete and re-establish him as the steadfast patriarch.
 
But then, as we've heretofore gathered, he never was that in the first place, the combined gist and moral of the story being that, alas poor Yorick, humans are fallible and, while on occasions of great inspiration are capable of species-saving genius, they are just as often prone to disappointing deeds and conduct.
 
We are thus set to mulling what the pun implied by the title, "Downhill," suggests. All the same, if it's true, per Thoreau, that most men lead lives of quiet desperation, there's no cosmic dictum saying we have to see movies that mirror that sad acquiescence.
 
"Downhill," rated R, is a Searchlight Pictures release directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell and Miranda Otto. Running time: 86 minutes
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