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DOWNHILL: A SMART COMEDY/DRAMA FOR GROWNUPS

If you’re among the relative handful of people who saw Ruben Östland’s wry Swedish film Force Majeure you’ll know the story of this remake, about an upscale couple on a European ski vacation which puts their relationship to a critical test. I liked the original very much but I also enjoyed this Americanization, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a script credited to them and Jesse Armstrong. This talented team found commonality with the source material and put their imprint on it with the help of a perfect cast led by Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Will Ferrell.

I hesitate to reveal too much but the premise is part of Downhill’s ad campaign and trailer. (In contrast, I saw Force Majeure knowing nothing about it, which was a definite asset.) Ferrell and Dreyfus arrive with their young sons at an Austrian ski resort, hoping for an escape from their day-to-day reality. One morning, as they are dining on a patio, an avalanche erupts and tumbles right toward them, descending so fast they can scarcely believe it. At the moment of impact, Ferrell leaps up from their picnic table and runs away. This is his defining moment, yet he pretends it didn’t happen. His family is dumbfounded, especially his wife.

How does one get past an incident like this? How indeed; that’s the crux of the film, and it is a serious matter. Faxon and Rash find organic comedy relief in the auxiliary characters they introduce (well played by Miranda Otto, Zach Woods, and Zoe Chao), each of whom reflects a facet of the central couple’s crisis.

Knowing the story points left me free to admire the way the filmmakers handled this offbeat material, which embraces dry humor and drama in equal measure. American audiences often reject movies that defy pigeonholing; I am drawn to these emotional hybrids, especially when they’re presented as skillfully as this one.

Even in approaching the film’s climax and resolution they don’t seek or employ easy answers, which I found completely satisfying. Downhill is not so much a story as an experience. Audiences who like unambiguous movies may not agree.

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