Sliding Over the Slippery Slope
Review by Ken Burke
I invite you to join me on a regular basis to see how my responses to current cinematic offerings compare to the critical establishment, which I’ll refer to as either the CCAL (Collective Critics at Large) if they agree with me or the OCCU (Often Cranky Critics Universe) if they choose to disagree.
Downhill (Nat Faxon, Jim Rash) rated R
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Pete's (Will Ferrell) been in a bit of a funk since his father died 8 months earlier so he’s attempting to enliven his life again by taking his family—wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their 2 sons—on an Austrian ski vacation which is going along quite decently enough (despite his frequent-cell-phone-texting-distractions) until the event of a controlled avalanche at their mountain resort results in him running away in panic leaving the family to fend for themselves, even though he tries to explain away his behavior afterward which Billie isn’t buying for a minute as her anger continues to rise along with emotional withdrawal from her husband (who’s now sleeping alone for most of the rest of this better-potential-than-actual-realization-movie). In that it’s an English-language-remake of a much-more-successful-Swedish-offering, Force Majeure, from a few years ago, there won’t be any need to offer spoiler warnings if you’re already aware of the original (I’m not, yet a plot summary tells me this new one’s very similar in structure—if not critical response—to what came before), but for those of us who hadn’t previously known the outcome I’ll need to stop here (unless you’re ready for the full details below; maybe not a bad idea as you could likely more effectively spend your movie dollars elsewhere) should you choose to see this one for yourself. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are effective in their roles, the cinematics of snow-covered-mountains are lovely, but overall you won’t miss much if you miss moving toward Downhill.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
(Yeah, I know, same image used below as the one just above; I didn't have a lot of options for photos, though, just as there don't seem to be a lot of plot options as to how Downhill develops.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who’d like to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify such give-away sentences/sentence-clusters thusly:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: Pete Staunton’s (Will Ferrell) been feeling emotionally-off a lot for the last 8 months after his father died so he hopes for a revival by taking his family—wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), young teenage son Finn (Julian Grey), barely teenage (if that) son Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford)—on a skiing vacation in the Austrian Alps where everything seems to be going well enough (although there are no other kids around this resort so the Staunton siblings have to spend most of every day with their parents, while Pete’s overly-attentive to his smartphone, especially sharing texts with work-buddy Zach [Zach Woods] who’s also in Europe with his girlfriend, Rosie [Zoë Chao]). Then it all comes apart one day when the family’s having lunch on an outdoor balcony; suddenly, an avalanche is triggered (intentionally) sending a torrent of snow down the mountainside which brings out a host of phone cameras to document the event until the snow goes directly under the balcony causing a lot of panic, with Pete running away from his family, coming back sheepishly when the “crisis” is over, with only a solid dusting of powder on the crowd, no damage done to anyone—except to the stability of Billie and Pete’s marriage as she’s first shocked, then increasingly angry he seemingly left them to possibly die while saving himself (and his phone). When, at Billie’s insistence, they later go to lodge a complaint with a local authority (Kristofer Hivju), he says the controlled avalanche went as planned, no harm came to anyone (although the filmmakers gave us initial reason to worry as the snow flew over the balcony, leaving us with nothing but a white screen for an uncomfortable length of time until we see the relatively-scant-amount of snow on the deck and patrons), there were notices everywhere altering the guests to the time and intent of the event; Billie didn’t see any of the warnings, although Pete reluctantly admits he did, not helping his situation with anyone in his family, especially when Hivju’s character (couldn’t find a name for him anywhere; didn’t catch it as the credits rolled by) refuses lawyer Billie’s request for an apology over the incident (the couple’s increasing separation’s shown visually as they have 2 bathroom sinks which they shared just 1 of at first, now operate in their individual spaces). Next day it all worsens as the parents oversleep, have to rush to catch a helicopter Pete arranged for some expensive, spectacular skiing, finally leading to cancellation as Emerson’s lost one of his gloves (easily found afterward near a car tire), the kids are starving with no breakfast, Billie’s irritated they’re getting no orientation about what awaits them that day before boarding the chopper, Pete’s exasperated as his money essentially flies away with the helicopter, no potentially-healing-special-event for this family.
So, what else could Pete do to make things worse? Easy answer: he continues to text with Zach who’s now in their vicinity so Pete accepts the suggestion that Zach and Rosie join them for dinner, much to Billie’s disgust (especially when she learns later Pete lied about how the connection came about). As they meet at the Stauntons’ suite for drinks the conversation turns to the avalanche with Billie finally releasing her disgust about Pete running away during the potential disaster, him trying to defend his motives (says he realized they were OK, yet he was going to get help?) so Billie drags the boys into it who admit they felt Dad was just running away (that night she sleeps with the kids). Next day she goes off on her own (Pete takes the boys on what appears to be a controlled-bobsled-track-ride, finally bumps against Emerson for using his brakes too much, gets banned from the ride, lets the kids just go back to the hotel to watch TV, ends up drinking with Zach which leads to a major bender for Pete as he’s feeling completely rejected, disrespected); Billie talks with (concierge?) Charlotte (Miranda Otto) who encourages her follow her own needs, husband or not, then leaves her with ski instructor Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti) who puts the moves on her when they stop at his cabin, leading to Billie responding at first, backing away, then tries to relieve her horniness by masturbating in a restroom stall but clumsily falls out through her unlocked door. ⇒Pete finally admits to Billie he was scared during the avalanche, wants to repair the relationship damage, but she says he’ll have to earn it. Last day of the trip Pete encourages them all to head to the slope called The Beast for one last thrill, but when they get there he admits he doesn’t want to do it, goes back down on a ski lift with the boys (Emerson admitted earlier he doesn’t care for skiing at all) leaving Billie to make the run by herself. When she hasn’t come down after awhile, Pete hikes up the mountain to find her sitting there intentionally (seemingly with a—fake—minor injury) so he can carry her down, redeeming himself in the eyes of his sons. As this all ends, Billie, Pete, Zack, and Rosie are standing in front of the hotel waiting to leave when a large clump of snow from the roof falls toward them as they all jump back a bit to avoid it, possibly leaving us with the ambiguous sense Pete’s fear during the avalanche was a normal reaction no one should fully be ashamed of.⇐
So What? Downhill’s title’s a clever-enough-pun referring both to the obvious direction of skiing and the ongoing deterioration of a marriage. But that’s where the cleverness ends according to many from the OCCU (although I don’t disagree with them all that much, even if my 3 stars-rating implies a healthier result than most of their opinions) as the Rotten Tomatoes critics mustered only a pathetic 40% of positive reviews while the folks surveyed by Metacritic were a tad more generous (for a change) but still yielded only a 49% average score (more details in the Related Links section farther below). Many complained little was gained by remaking this story from the original Swedish Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, 2014; title refers to a contractual clause freeing both parties from liability in the event of unexpected disasters), played more as a comedy or at least with better interpersonal relationships than this remake (which has its humorous moments [mostly prior to the avalanche scene] but heads into dramatic-couple’s-confrontation-territory for much of its attempt-to-not-overstay-its-welcome, running only 86 min. as if co-directors/co-screenwriters [with Jesse Armstrong for the latter] couldn’t come up with any other plot devices to pad this story, despite their Adapted Screenplay-Oscar-heritage for their work on The Descendants [Alexander Payne, 2011])—for comparison, the RT response to Force Majeure was 94% positive, the MC average was 87% (quite high for them); another link in Downhill is the casting of Hivju who essentially had Zack’s role in the Swedish version, so if you’d like to know a bit more about the original (which won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival) here’s the trailer. I was aware of the poor critical response to Downhill, but a combination of other plans, disinterest in alternative options, and logistical considerations about traveling quite a distance to see something more interesting led me to a nearby-theater; I can’t say I was overly-taken with what I saw as the shift to a serious tone (as Billie’s increasingly-steamed at Pete) is seemingly misdirected back to some comic encounters, Pete shows enough character flaws to make me wonder what Billie saw in him years ago (did Dad’s death really unhinge him all that much?), the ending with the snow splat implies little to bring a satisfactory conclusion (Pete's clearly on report from Billie as he hopes to go about digging himself out of the avalanche of bad feelings he’s created from his wife and kids) leaves me with a jumbled-reaction, still appreciative of the talents of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell but in agreement there’s not much going on here, especially to draw Julia’s interest as a producer as well as star. I’m sure the goal was to cast 2 big names in comedy to draw in audiences, hoping they’d be willing to tolerate drama instead, but those involved in this experiment might have been more successful if they’d just re-released Force Majeure with dubbed English dialogue (even using the current cast, again for attractive-name-value) rather than the scorned-misfire they’ve ended up with.
Bottom Line Final Comments: Last year Disney acquired the film holdings of what's been renamed the Fox Corp.—including 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures—the Fox name now dropped by Disney (to avoid any “contamination” of these properties through association with the Trump-kissing-Fox-cable-“news”; the main cinematic enterprise became Twentieth Century Studios) so the predominant production/distribution company of this movie's called Searchlight Pictures. So far, the existing acquisitions for Disney from that purchase haven’t been very successful at the box-office, except for Ford v Ferrari (James Mangold, 2019; review in our November 27, 2019 posting—we’ll just have to see what happens when Disney’s more in charge of new Twentieth Century/Searchlight product, including what might happen with the entire cluster of Marvel superheroes/villains [except Spider-Man] all owned by Uncle Walt’s conglomerate). This latest-leftover-release is indicative of the current failures of existing Fox film projects to generate much income: despite opening in 2,301 domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters last weekend, Downhill (with now a financial-connotation added to that name) managed to bring in a mere $5.1 million (plus another $5.1 thousand from international markets) so if you have any interest in this movie (the stars do reasonable work with what the script provides them) you’d better find it fast before it’s long gone. Admittedly, poor critical response likely added to its essentially being ignored by moviegoers during its debut days, but weak reviews haven’t put much of a damper on last weekend’s box-office-champs with #1 Sonic the Hedgehog (Jeff Fowler)—based on a videogame—taking in $58 million domestically ($113 globally) despite responses from RT at 65%, MC at 47% or #3 Fantasy Island (Jeff Wadlow) making $14 million in northern North America ($21.6 million globally) even with RT results of 10% (!), MC 20% (the exception in this group is #2 Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn [Cathy Yan] which has pulled in $60 million domestically after 2 weeks [$145 million globally] with CCAL support of 78% at RT, 60% at MC—I guess I might have been slightly better off choosing this one to see, but I’m currently saturated with comic-book-based-superhero tales [or villains functioning as such against a more-evil-force in this case], also not encouraged to continue with a lead character [even played by the talented Margo Robbie] from Suicide Squad [David Ayer, 2016] where the OCCU response was 27% at RT, 40% at MC [although it did rack up a $746.8 million gross worldwide]). Well, as Pete says in Downhill (based on advice from his father), “Every day is all we have” (so we need to make the most of it), which is what I tried to do with a movie choice last weekend given my ongoing respect for the abilities of Ferrell and (especially) Louis-Dreyfus, even if the result's not as fully functional as I'd hoped it might have been.
|(This image isn't exactly a copy of The Beatles' Help album cover but evokes it a bit,|
although I have no idea what the Stauntons might be spelling out in semaphore.)
What Downhill needed was "help [... from] somebody [… although] not just anybody” (even with Oscar-winning-scriptwriters on board already) so I’ll close out this review with the usual tactic of a last cluster of comments in the form of a Musical Metaphor, this time (mostly) John Lennon’s “Help” (from The Beatles’ 1965 movie soundtrack of the same name) with lyrics appropriate to Pete’s situation as he ultimately admits to Billie: “I never needed anybody’s help in any way But now those days are gone, I’m not so self-assured […] Help me if you can, I’m feeling down And I do appreciate you being round Help me get my feet back on the ground […] But every now and then I feel so insecure I know that I just need you like I’ve never done before.” The official music video for this song, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Q_ZzBGPdqE, is a rather silly bit of business with the Fab Four lip-syncing the recording, bouncing around on a sawhorse, the others holding their instruments but Ringo clutching only an umbrella which does come in handy at the end when fake snow’s dumped on them, so the goofiness here undercuts the serious plea of the lyrics for emotional aid at a time when youthful vanity begins to give way to a sense of “Oh, shit, now what am I supposed to do?” (Apparently Lennon’s honest reaction to the overwhelming fame engulfing the group beyond their wildest dreams even early in their careers—I never experienced anything like that, but I did relate to the feelings of “And now my life has changed in oh so many ways My independence seems to vanish in the haze” as I found myself in 1975 divorced at 27 after only a few years of marriage, embarking on a college teaching career at 30 even though I was barely prepared for any of the courses I was suddenly in charge of.) Yet, this is exactly what Downhill attempts to do: Set up a situation of serious concerns (there are times when Billie looks like she’s about to explode physically the same way she did emotionally when confronting Pete about his abandonment of his loved ones in a crisis situation) yet keep shifting at times to comedy, seemingly playing to audience expectations of these particular stars (maybe to more actively mirror the events of Force Majeure, which I haven’t seen). So, if you want a more direct version of “Help,” here's one, a live 1965 performance. Downhill’s not a direct descent into a wasted opportunity as some reviews indicate (if nothing else the Alpine scenery—it’s shot in snow-covered-Austria, a place where I’ve actually walked around some drifts several thousand feet up, even in mid-summer—is gorgeous, some aspects of the acting are quite effective, although Louis-Dreyfus is more engaging in her slow-boil than Ferrell is, forced to be so consistently wimpy, clueless as to how to rescue this trip after making such a fool of himself), but it does conform to the stereotype of weak filmic opportunities tossed away in late winter while audiences may still be catching up on Oscar-winners before more interesting fare comes along in spring, followed by oh-so-many-summer-blockbusters.
In the meantime you might also want to catch up on an Oscar winner (that I'll bet many of us haven't seen yet) from the Animated Short Film releases, Hair Love (Matthew A. Cherry), which runs a mere 6:47 while compressing a lot of heartfelt sentiment about a little African-American girl with a headful of unruly hair, an overwhelmed Dad who initially can't make any sense of it while Mom's in the hospital (seemingly battling cancer, given her bald head), which you can find here. I don't mean to undercut options for theaters to make some cash with their (likely) waning weeks (days?) of showing these Academy-nominated-Shorts-programs so if you're intrigued enough to seek out the contestants for Animation, Documentary, and/or Live Action (the latter reviewed in my previous posting) please do it at this site, but for many of you the Internet may be the only option you have so please don't assume I'm trying to help put moviehouses out of business (I'll leave that to Netflix).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2019’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 9, 2020 we’re also going to include reminders in each posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2019 films have been nominated for and/or received various awards
and which ones made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists. You may find the diversity among the various awards competitions and the various critics hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competitive-award-winners (which pales when compared to the even-more-noticeable-gap between specific award winners and big box-office-grosses you might want to monitor here)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices for success are as valid as any of these others, especially if you offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).
To save you a little time scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the current Golden Globe nominees and winners for films and TV from 2019 along with the Oscar nominees and winners for 2019 films.
Here’s more information about Downhill:
https://www.searchlightpictures.com/downhill/ (but there’s not a lot here so you might want to look at this one—https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4558376/—also)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SyDSMIHCLI (17:31 Kevin Smith interviews actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus [also a co-producer with Stefanie Azpiazu, Anthony Bregman], Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zach Woods, Zoë, Kristofer Hivju, and co-directors/co-screenwriters Nat Faxon, Jim Rash—there’s a minimum of content about the movie, though)
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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of email@example.com. (But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)
If we did talk, though, you’d easily see how my early-70s-age informs my references, Musical Metaphors, etc. in these reviews because I’m clearly a guy of the later 20th century, not so much the contemporary world. I’ve come to accept my ongoing situation, though, realizing we all (if fate allows) keep getting older, we just have to embrace it, as Joni Mitchell did so well in "The Circle Game," offering sage advice even when she was quite young herself.
By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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