‘Downhill’ Demonstrates the Limits of Constrained Remakes

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CREDIT: Jaap Buitendijk/Twentieth Century Fox

Starring: Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Miranda Otto, Zach Woods, Zoë Chao, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford

Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Running Time: 86 Minutes

Rating: R for Bold Language That Pops Out on Vacation

Release Date: February 14, 2020

Sometimes a remake that otherwise seems pretty pointless can be useful for helping to clarify something that you may have missed in the original. That happened to me with the explosive conclusion of the Korean classic neo-noir Oldboy and Spike Lee’s 2013 remake, and now I have experienced it once again with Downhill, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s take on the 2014 Swedish cringe family comedy Force Majeure. There’s a climactic moment on a ski slope in Force Majeure that felt to me at the time meditative and ambiguous, but when I saw Downhill‘s take, the purpose of that incident was spelled out much more clearly. (Although reconciling these two as congruent requires a specific interpretation of Force Majeure.) There’s an argument to be made in favor of leaving the meaning as subtext, but I know I felt satisfied in the moment. As for the rest of this American version, let’s just say this material is very tricky to make entertaining, no matter what part of the world you’re in and no matter how many times it’s been told.

Force Majeure‘s inciting incident is an all-time doozy, and Downhill does it pretty much exactly the same. The Staunton family on vacation at a ski resort in the Alps when a supposedly controlled avalanche looks like it is about to turn deadly. In a moment of panic, Dad Pete (Will Ferrell) runs away from his wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and his two sons. Ultimately nobody is hurt, but the tension remains simmering for the entire vacation. This all plays out in set pieces that are quite often lifted directly from the original. Pete’s psyche breaks down as he cannot bring himself to admit his betrayal, while Billie insists on the version of the truth that she can so clearly see is the correct version, and friends and acquaintances look on horrified, profoundly flummoxed by the impossible task of lightening the mood.

It’s not necessarily a more Americanized version of the same thing, at least no more so than a version starring American actors must necessarily be. Instead, it’s a more mature version, as Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are more than a decade older than their counterparts, Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli, were when Force Majeure came out. The original dealt with new-ish parents struggling with their evolving self-identities, while Downhill is about a middle-aged couple despairing, “It can’t be this disastrous after we’ve come so far, can it?!” That’s a theme it would have been wise to lean into more instead of relying so much on the template it had ready to go. But as it stands, it is still a fascinating dive into the panic that arises when we realize that we may never fully know who we and our loved ones really are.

Downhill is Recommended If You Like: Hard Questions

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Avalanches

‘A.P. Bio’ Has a Striking Amount of ‘Community’ DNA

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CREDIT: NBC

Over the past few months, the delightful high school-set sitcom A.P. Bio has become one of my favorite shows on the air, but then NBC went a little cuckoo and cancelled it. There’s been some effort on the part of the cast, crew, and fans to find the show a new home, but unless that happens, we will have to be satisfied with two short-but-sweet seasons.

One of the reasons I love A.P. Bio so much is because it shares a lot of DNA with my favorite show of all time, which would be Community, another former NBC sitcom that was constantly on the brink of cancellation (though unlike A.P. Bio, it kept beating the renewal odds). Their premises and central characters are strikingly similar. In Community, Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) is a high-powered lawyer who gets disbarred and must enroll at a community college. Meanwhile, A.P. Bio stars Glenn Howerton as Jack Griffin, a disgraced Harvard philosophy professor who is forced to take a lowly part-time teaching job at a high school in Toledo, Ohio.

As I watched and grew to love A.P. Bio, I kept noticing more and more Community similarities, to the point that I could detect analogues for all the major characters. So I’ve assembled below a side-by-side comparison of the Greendale Human Beings and their corresponding Whitlock Rams. Enjoy, and let me know if you need help reacting to riding that ram.

(Thank you to my fellow commenters at the AV Club and Disqus for helping me out with these comparisons!)

Jack (Glenn Howerton) = Jeff (Joel McHale)

CREDIT: YouTube

The protagonists who try to act above it all but eventually embrace the crazy scholastic ecosystems they’ve become an integral part of.

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