I’ve been meaning to watch 2014’s Force Majeure for some time but it was one of those movies that just fell behind and got trapped by the ever-increasing backlog of “to see” films. Then I discovered that there was to be an American remake by the Oscar-winning writing team behind The Descendants and I decided now would be a good time to go back to Force Majeure. But I purposely chose not to watch the Swedish original until after having watched the American remake, Downhill, to delay prejudicing myself. Both movies have value as cringe comedies prodding fragile masculinity, though the Swedish import runs more with the cascading consequences and the English remake plays more broadly with its big stars.
Both movies follow families on skiing vacations where the father (Johannes Kuhnke as Tomas, Will Ferrell as Pete) abandon their wives (Lisa Loven Kongdli as Ebba, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie) and children when an approaching avalanche looks to be imminently deadly. It proves to be harmless but the scare it created was very real, and the damage to this family is also very real. In their dire moment of need, as death looked increasingly possible, this family watched its patriarch run away to save himself (and not before grabbing his phone). The father denies running away, finding his own slippery slope of excuses to pretend and convince his family that everything is still the same.
Downhill takes the very specific tone of the Swedish original by writer/director Ruben Ostlund (The Square) and plays it safer and more broadly. There’s an added context of the ski lodge being a couple’s resort with the idea of horny and available alternatives just a slope away for fun. The movie is practically throwing a more traditionally “manly” and virile romantic candidate at Billie and it’s so obvious and immediate that it reminded me of the sexy yoga instructor from 2009’s Couples Retreat, another movie that involved a holiday retreat with two camps, one more family-friendly and another more hedonistic. It feels too convenient and crass to immediately present our heroine with prime cheating options and have her question her own fidelity. In Force Majeure, one of the best and most awkward moments occurs when Tomas tries to portray himself as an equal victim to his own shortcomings as a man. He lists several faults, including infidelity, that don’t phase his wife, which implies she is well aware of this man’s flaws. It’s such a pathetic moment of emotional manipulation that incredulous laughter is the only natural response, and the movie makes the viewer stay in that uncomfortable squirm. Tomas lays on the floor wailing like a child, which then triggers his children to come out and lay upon their weeping father and then admonish their mother to follow their supportive lead. It’s a hilarious moment and borne from the organic developments tied to character relationships. In Downhill, by contrast, we get stuff like the sexy ski instructor and a really horny, handsy lodge lady (Miranda Otto, in thick accent).
That’s not to say the remake doesn’t find effective ways to make the most of its American infusion. There’s a scene where Pete and Billie are complaining to the ski lodge staff because someone must account for their perceived injury. The moment doesn’t go as they hoped and the security head (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) refuses to apologize or admit any wrong. He points out all the warnings that the American couple somehow missed, and this only causes Billie to grow in her impotent agitation. It’s a moment that plays to the ugly American stereotype of self-absorption and the insistence to be heard. This scene would not have worked with the Force Majeure characters at all. Billie is a more interesting character and given more ambiguity and flaws than Ebba, who is often the perplexed voice of the audience. There are adaptation changes and new jokes that work for Downhill but more often it doesn’t explore the comic avenues open to it (hashtag jokes… really?). The best jokes are frequently holdovers.
Something I enjoyed exclusively about Force Majeure was how it widened its scope to include the contagious nature of questioning masculine assumptions. The supporting characters have more significance than in Downhill. Tomas’ friend, Mats (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju), begins as an awkward lifeline trying to offer meager supportive explanations to his beleaguered friend’s cowardice (“You ran away so that you could come back and dig everyone out, right?”) and then he too is negatively affected. His much younger girlfriend begins to look at him differently and with suspicion, wondering if he too would disappoint when under a similar life-threatening scenario. She questions whether it’s simply a generational divide and an older generation (Mats) just doesn’t feel as brave and selfless. This eats away at Mats and wreaks havoc with his relationship. You too might consider how well you really know your loved ones and how you might respond as well. It’s such a wonderful what-if scenario to apply to one’s self. This contagious nature of doubt makes the story feel that much more interesting when one man’s failings can spiral outward and ensnare others. This deepened the dark comedy and provided interesting and complimentary side characters. With Downhill, we don’t really get any other characters on the same level of consideration as our main couple, Pete and Billie.
The children actually play a bigger role in Downhill as the relationship between the sons and their father is on the brink. They see him decidedly different and Pete spends time trying to regain their favor and trust and, naturally, failing. With Force Majeure, the children are kept on the sidelines and they’re more worried that mom and dad may be doomed to a divorce rather than being upset or disappointed with their father. Downhill clearly aligns the sons with their mother and has Billie call upon them to provide corroborating testimony to her account in one deliciously awkward extended moment. It’s one area where Downhill bests its source material but again that’s because it also dramatically scales down the importance of supporting adults.
Ferrell (Holmes & Watson) and Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) are such an enjoyable comedy pairing and work together smoothly for Downhill’s broader aims. The Swedish actors are far more subdued, understated, and dry, dissolving into playing mundane, regular folk. You’re not going to get that with Ferrell especially. His big screen buffoon tendencies play well for Pete’s blustery self-deluded narcissism, but he lacks the bite for the destructive self-pity that emboldened Kuhnke. Ferrell’s performance is more restrained than you might assume but he still doesn’t feel like the right fit for the character and where he needs to go. He never stops being seen as Ferrell. Louis-Dreyfus is such a pro and is able to navigate the bleaker comedy with great precision. Her shaken monologue retelling the avalanche incident and pausing on “… to die, I guess” had me rolling.
Downhill is over 30 minutes shorter and yet it feels stretched thin, circling the same comic points, which can make the film feel frustratingly smaller in scope and ambition. The endings are different and come across a similar message over never knowing how a person may respond in the middle of danger. Force Majeure concludes with a scenario that allows its wounded males to save some honor and the women to question their own responses, a paradigm shift of gender expectations. The triumphant recapturing of masculinity builds to its own satirical breaking point, ready to laugh at Tomas feeling like a ridiculous John Wane-style cowboy. In contrast, the American ending doesn’t feel as rich or as earned as its predecessor.
Downhill is an accessible and funny remake that has some smart deviations from its source material to deliver its own version, and sometimes it feels like the filmmakers want to make a much more mainstream comedy. The tonal identity issues sap the comedic and dramatic momentum of the story, which can make the overall film frustrating and unsatisfying at times while you wait for it to settle. Then its 85 minutes are over and it’s done. Force Majeure, on the other hand, is the most confident, strident, and awkward viewing, not to mention longer viewing at two hours in length. It’s actually too long and with a few segments that could be trimmed or removed entirely (drone flying, the first set of friends, getting lost in a snowy fog). There’s even a running joke where the gag is simply that the ski lifts and moving sidewalks are just super slow. The movie takes its understated, dry comic sensibility even to its relaxed sense of pacing. Both movies are funny and emphasize different aspects of the premise of the consequences of cowardice. I likely would have enjoyed Downhill less had I seen Force Majeure first but it’s still a decent American remake for something that was so calculating and exact in tone, a laugh-out-loud comedy that doesn’t play like a comedy. Still, co-writers/directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (The Way Way Back) have enough skill and polished instinct that even a less sophisticated, more obvious version of Force Majeure is still entertaining enough. It might lack some of the edge of the original but Downhill is an agreeable comedy of disagreeable decisions.
Force Majeure: B+
Where exactly did this go so wrong? The rebooted Charlie’s Angels is based on a property that the general public has little investment in 2019 and it seems like nobody was aching for another movie. The early 2000s Angels movies were fun and had some big names attached and it was the debut for music video director McG, a guy who knew his way around visual decadence. I think the first wrong step was hiring Elizabeth Banks to both write and direct. Banks has been a highly successful actress and recently directed Pitch Perfect 2, but a fizzy spy thriller is another matter entirely, and the end results of the new Angels doesn’t help. Scene to scene, timing and shot selections just feel off, and there’s one sequence I’ll use as an example of the whole. Sabina (Kristen Stewart) is chasing after a bad guy. He’s in a car and she’s on a horse. You would naturally think, given that dynamic, you’d want to showcase the speed and fluidity of the horse with wider shots, the horse getting closer, and yet the camera jumbles between awkward close-ups, clumsily edited together, sapping all energy from the action and making me wonder if there were logistics challenges to cut around. The action is so lackluster but the story is also needlessly convoluted and unclear, with things meant to be revelations that I thought were obvious, and things that the movie thought were explained that were very much inexplicable. Sabina and Jane (Ella Balsinka) just assume Elana (Naomi Scott), a tech engineer roped into an adventure, will just pick up on things without explanation. They leave her a package of mints that aren’t really mints but she, and we, don’t know what they’re for. The rules are unclear and there are so few setups and payoffs. At no point does the movie give me anything to grab onto, whether it’s a interesting set piece, a villain with a colorful personality, or some surprise turn. This is a very thoroughly bland movie that seems to serve its empowerment message above all else, sacrificing action, comedy, and good plotting along the way to beat the drum. I’m on Banks’ side here, but there were moments that just made me roll my eyes with how heavy-handed the “girls can do it too” message was, like a montage of women across the world doing things like science and sports and friendship; it felt like I was watching a hacky campaign commercial. I will say there is a refreshing lack of male gaze even as the Angels are dressing up in sexy outfits to entrance weak men. The cast is the real highlight and they have a charming chemistry together, enough that given a stronger script or a more adept director I could envision this trio really succeeding. The end credits present Elana going through a series of Kingsman-style trials to enter Angel Academy, and that’s when I yelled, “This is the movie I should have been seeing! Angel Academy!” The 2019 Charlie’s Angels reboot is a wash. The humor is strained, the high-tech gadgets and spy set pieces are so haphazard, the plot is convoluted without being intriguing, and there just isn’t a feel for the genre material from Banks as its leading creative vision. It doesn’t fail because it’s too woke, or whatever the self-pittying Men Rights Activists of Twitter claim, but because it didn’t know how to be the movie it wanted to be. Turns out everyone can do mediocrity.
Nate’s Grade: C-
A throwback to the youthful summer movies of the 80s, The Way, Way Back is a delightful coming-of-age film that manages to excel at both comedy and drama. Oscar-winners Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (co-writers of 2011’s The Descendants) graduate to directors, guiding the famous cast with ease yet squeezing enough satisfying emotional truth into the formula of a screwy, Meatballs-style comedy. We follow 13-year-old Duncan (Liam James) as he spends the summer with his mother (Toni Collette) and her bully of a boyfriend (Steve Carell). My one gripe is that the film spends far more time than it needs to establish just how unequivocally awkward Duncan is. You will likely cringe. When Sam Rockwell enters the picture as a charming goofball water park employee who takes Duncan under his wing is when the movie ascends to a new level of comedy. The Way, Way Back hums along with its own sense of charm, presenting familiar characters/scenes but giving them added texture and relatability. You will be surprised at how much you feel for these characters, you may get a bit misty at points, especially when they behave like people and not zany cartoons. Carell as a bad guy is a real eye-opener; he’s a passive aggressive bully rarely seen in movies. James is an authentically awkward teen but you also buy every step of his journey. It’s just such a sweet, enjoyable, and cute movie, exuding charm and sincerity. Here is a movie that just makes you smile. You’ll leave The Way, Way Back feeling warm and fuzzy, and Rash and Faxon have another winner on their hands.
Nate’s Grade: B+
A lamebrain comedy with a horrible, repulsive romance where we watch a sweet, hapless zookeeper (Kevin James) romance a shallow woman (Leslie Bibb) who dumped him years ago and wants him to change, despite the fact that he’s great at his job, loves what he does, an the animals love the big lug as well, so much so that the animals all take turns giving the guy mating advice. That doesn’t sound like a bad premise for a comedy, though James takes the admission that animals could always talk a little too in stride. Their advice typically amounts to stuff like “puff out your chest” and “pee on this tree.” The potential of the premise is dashed when the comedy usually takes one of two routes: 1) James being clumsy, or, 2) James being fat. Rarely will The Zookeeper stray from these two troughs of canned laughs. There’s a bizarre montage of product placement for T.G.I. Friday’s where James takes a gorilla out to the restaurant. There’s Rosario Dawson looking splendid as the Obvious Love Interest Who Will Not Materialize Until James Has to Chase Her Down to Stop Her From Leaving. And there are poop jokes. Oh, the poop jokes. At one point there was a studio bidding war over this screenplay, which has five names attached to the finished product. I can’t imagine the end result was worth fighting over when it’s so predictable, flat-footed, and unfunny. And why have animals singing over the end credits? Surely that little dash of CGI was an extra few million dollars that could have been spent wiser, like purchasing a different script.
Nate’s Grade: C-
We’re so used to seeing George Clooney as a smooth operator, a guy who coasts on his suave charm and chiseled-from-granite good looks. But in The Descendants, Clooney is more vulnerable than he’s ever been, trying to keep his family together, and as the film plays out we realize just how mighty a task this goal is. His character is ill equipped to take the lead of his family, especially a family of growing girls he is consistently confused with. His journey is much more than just becoming a better father. That lesson would be far too pat for director/co-writer Alexander Payne. It’s been a good while since Payne’s last film, 2004’s Sideways, but in that time away he has shaped another outstanding human comedy that manages to squeeze in more emotion than most Hollywood movies could ever hope for.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-described “backup parent” who has been thrust into the lead role. His wife, Elizabeth, is in a coma after suffering a traumatic head injury from a Jet Ski accident. The doctors say that she has no hope of waking up and she will die in a matter of days. Matt must break the news to his 10-year-old daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) and his rebellious older daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley). The headstrong Alexandra clashes with her faltering father, finally revealing the reason why she blew up at mom months ago. She found out that Elizabeth was having an affair. Matt is reeling and searching for answers from friends, family, and his two daughters.
Payne’s specializes in pitch-perfect bittersweet character-based comedies, ones that seem to unfurl over a journey of self-awakening. His fictional worlds feel exquisitely rendered, where every character beat and every line of dialogue feels genuine. That’s quite an achievement for a filmmaker of any scope. Even when dealing with caricatures (like in 2002’s About Schmidt), somehow Payne gets away with it. With The Descendants, the sunny setting of Hawaii is just an exotic backdrop for some wonderful, and wonderfully relatable, family drama. It’s hardly the worry-free paradise. Uncovering his wife’s secrets has lead Matt to reassess the woman he loved. The movie completely upends the standard deathbed goodbye trope. Instead of characters openly bawling about the loss of a saintly soul taken far too soon, we have characters dealing with real conflicted emotions, particularly anger, directed at the indisposed and unfaithful mother. Every character is approaching grief differently, and every character is trying to make sense of their feelings before Elizabeth’s inevitable passing. Matt’s father-in-law (Robert Forster) is harsh with accusations at the ready, blaming Elizabeth’s tragedy on Matt’s shortcomings as a husband. His pain is raw but al too recognizable. Matt and Alexandra are plotting how much info to reveal to young Scottie, trying not to ruin her image of her mother, a tremendous challenge with no easy answer.
This is the stuff of grand drama, and Payne doesn’t skimp on the heart-tugging moments. The Descendants is also a great comedy, naturally finding humor drawn from the situation and characters. The advertising has made The Descendants appear like a broad family comedy, with Clooney flapping around in his noisy flip-flops. This is not the case. The comedy doesn’t feel insensitive or too macabre, instead it adds another enlightening level to these people and their pain. We try and make sense of our world, to cope with our struggles and failures, with comedy, and so too does Matt and his family. You’ll probably be surprised how often you laugh and then in the next moment feel a lump in your throat. The character of Sid (Nick Krause) starts off as a questionable plot tagalong, a doofus for some easy laughs. His reaction to an elderly woman with Alzheimer’s is the movie’s one point of questionable validity. As the film progresses, this laid-back guy is revealed to have more layers, just like the rest of the clan. The second half of the film becomes something of a minor key detective story as Matt and Alexandra search for the elusive “other man.” As Alexandra eggs him on, the two bond over this manhunt and Matt becomes bolder, more confident, and clear-headed about the hard decisions that are necessary for his new life. The emotional rewards of the film are nourishing. Watching Matt and his daughters sit on the couch watching a movie together (March of the Penguins no less. Draw your own connections about parental turmoil), you’ll feel satisfied that this broken family has begin to heal itself.
The Descendants takes an interesting turn when we learn more about the other man’s background. Matthew Lillard (Without a Paddle) is actually respectable as Brain Speer, the real estate titan having the aforementioned affair with Elizabeth. Matt’s confrontation is subdued, sidestepping righteous grandstanding for a better attempt to seek understanding. Instead of lecturing Brian, he wants to know more about what his wife was after that Matt could not offer. Sure he’s still angry and doesn’t let the guy off easy. Complicating matters is the fact that Brian has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two children. Matt is trying to find answers without willfully harming Brain’s family. Greer (Love Happens) has an outstanding sequence where she feels beholden to forgive rather than hate, a note of grace that feels rather profound.
Clooney at one point says he’s just trying to keep his head above water, and you can see why. The man shows a great deal of range as his character confronts his grief. There is no “right” way when it comes to grieving, something deeply personal. Matt’s dilemma is given an unlikely situational twist, but the feelings of betrayal and confusion are all too believable. Matt is looking for answers when the person who holds them all lies sleeping. As he develops a lager picture of his wife and her unhappiness, Clooney expertly flashes through a multitude of thoughts. While arguably not as textured as his performance in Up in the Air, Clooney is in fine form, showcasing a deeper sense of loss and anxiety. Matt is trying to find his footing while his world radically adjusts, and nothing has adjusted more than his feelings toward his wife. Clooney doesn’t have any Big Moments of Great Emotion, though lashing out at his comatose wife comes close, but the man’s nuanced portrayal of a life in flux is the stuff that award ceremonies were made for.
Woodley is a remarkable discovery, more than holding her own with Clooney. She is excellent in her portrayal of an aggressive, mouthy, rebellious teenager. It’s all the more astonishing because Woodley’s long-running TV show, The Secret Life of the American Teenager, is one of the worst shows still running on television. The show is so inartful, the dialogue is so tin-eared, and the acting is wooden like the actors have been imprisoned. Where has this actress been the whole time? Woodley’s performance is so alive with genuine feeling, stripping away any reservations of the too typical bratty teen role. She’s much more than a troubled teen sent off to boarding school. Her every inflection, hesitation, motion feels completely natural for her character, and when Woodley gets her big dramatic scenes she is a force to witness. Upon the sudden news that her mother will die soon, she plunges underwater in the family pool and screams as loud as she can, tears squeezing out of those sorrowful eyes. For goodness’ sake, this girl cries underwater. An Oscar nomination is assured for the 20-year-old young actress. Maybe she can quit her crummy TV show after the wave of good press and fawning praise that await her.
The Descendants is an incredibly observed human drama, a humane and touching comedy, a movie so engaged and plugged in to the messiness of human emotions, eschewing the bitterness of some of Payne’s earlier works. This is a thoughtful and nuanced flick that is elevated to even grander heights due to the excellent performances of father/daughter team Clooney and Woodley. The film hits all those traditional emotional notes but on its own terms. The movie approaches a graceful resolution by accepting the incomprehensible disarray of life. The Descendants is just about everything you’d want in a movie: supreme acting, strong characters, an affecting story, and emotions that are completely earned. Payne’s mature and tender movie is, by the end, rather hopeful, a celebration of family overcoming adversity. It’s not schmaltzy in the slightest but a powerful antidote to simple cynicism. This holiday season, be a good movie citizen and spread the word of The Descendants.
Nate’s Grade: A