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+
It’s got an appealing premise and many funny people attached, so why is The House such a shoulder-shrug of a comedy? Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler open a casino in a sleepy suburb to try and make enough dough to send their daughter to the college of her dreams. Ultimately, it’s just too safe and expected. There are plenty of jokes about the couple trying to adopt the mafia thuggery they’ve seen in popular movies. The set pieces feel underdeveloped and quick to end on strangely violent notes, including a running gag of physical harm coming to one of the daughter’s friends. Ferrell and Poehler don’t have strong characters to play, so when the scenes go long, as they often do, you feel like they’re just throwing whatever improv riffs they can to see what sticks. It gets tedious. The depiction of this reality also leads to difficult questions. They didn’t lose their child’s college fund through some swindle; they just never saved, always assuming their daughter would earn a scholarship. They also have never heard about student loans, which every person is guaranteed access to. We also don’t see the ramifications of Ferrell and Poehler fleecing their neighbors of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Wouldn’t that have a deleterious effect on a small suburb? It should at least create more conflict. The movie jumps directly from the parents deciding they will open a casino to having an open casino. It feels like we skipped a whole act of valuable material. How did they hire these people? Where did they get the capital? I think a major mistake was having such a select number of characters. This premise deserved to be an ensemble comedy with each character contributing in some fashion. Jason Mantzoukas (TV’s The League) is the funniest resource the film has and I knew at least when he was on screen that I had the best chance for laughter. I may be heartless but I found the daughter to be a simpering, annoying character. What teenager doesn’t have or desire an independent life outside his or her parents? She doesn’t seem worth all the trouble. The House finished filming around January 2016, which means it’s been a long edit to find as much funny as they could with the available footage. I think they either ran out of time or just gave up.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Highly creative, cheeky, frenetic, and bursting with visual splendor, The LEGO Movie will likely surpass all expectations you had for what was assumed a 90-minute LEGO commercial. I cannot even tell if it’s actually a commercial or a subversive consumerist satire, or perhaps a blending of both. Writer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller take their same anarchic, comic rambunctious absurdity exhibited in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street and produce another movie so fast-paced, so freewheeling in energy, and so comically alive that you feel rejuvenated by the end. These are gentlemen who fully know the storytelling power with animation and they create worlds that are astounding to watch. While completely computer generated, the world looks like it was stop-motion. In fact, the detail that everything in the physical world is made of LEGOs was a nice touch, including fire, water, and smoke. The story of an unremarkable guy (slyly stupidly voiced by Chris Pratt) mistaken for The One, and the complications that arise, is a fitting satire of superhero fantasy mythos filmmaking. The social commentary on conformity and the media is cutting without distracting from the plot’s ongoing mission. The characters are fun, the jokes land assuredly, and the action sequences are mesmerizing. But then it takes a meta turn in the third act that gives the movie a whole other prism that helps define its previous outrageousness while leading to a poignant message about the inclusiveness of play. It’s a movie that celebrates imagination and individuality, and while it will more than likely also sell a crapload of toys, it’s an animated film with more on its mind. To paraphrase the top radio hit in the world of LEGOS, everything is just enough awesome.
Nate’s Grade: A-
A lot has changed in the nine years since the raucous, instantly quotable, and deeply silly hit comedy, Anchorman. Steve Carell, Will Ferrell, and Paul Rudd have all become big stars (sorry Dave Koechner), producer Judd Apatow has become a comedy empire unto himself, and director Adam McKay has gone on to helm several other hit Ferrell collaborations. As much as I loved Anchorman, and I unabashedly do, I was nervous about a sequel capturing the same magic. While Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues cannot be as good as its predecessor; my worries were mainly unfounded because this is still the funniest movie of the year. Simply put, if you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find enough to enjoy, possibly even love, with this latest chapter. The laughs-to-minute ratio is pretty high, as long as you don’t mind some scenic detours. The plot is much looser this time with several competing storylines that come in and out of focus. There are segments that could have been cut completely, like Ron’s bout with blindness, but I laughed enough that I never minded. But that ending 15 minutes is where the filmmakers drop any pretension of reality and double down on absurdity. It’s no surprise that those last crazy 15 minutes were my favorite. The cast is universally strong together, working off one another’s comedic styles so effortlessly, but the plot is very much a kitchen sink approach. I’m happy that Ferrell and McKay, co-writers again (though it’s hard to credit a collaborative improv), didn’t feel the need to recycle many jokes from the first film, reliving their old hits for fans hungry for instant nostalgia. Anchorman 2 is the same brilliantly broad comedy and absurdist dada experiment every loyal fan was hoping for. Give the gift of Ron Burgandy this holiday season and stay classy, America.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Broad and oafish for political satire, The Campaign has some decent belly-laughs to it with the main point that our national political environment has become a parody of itself. It’s Will Ferrell doing his usual boorish boob stuff and then there’s Zach Galifianakis as an effete, weird, family values doofus. When it gets looney, The Campaign is at its best. I loved a town hall that descended into a mob chanting their willful opposition to Rainbow Land. I enjoyed that Ferrell’s punching of innocent creatures was turned into a running gag. Having a racist old man pay his Asian maid to talk like an old black mammy because he misses the good old times? That is downright inspired and I giggle just thinking about it. The campaign commercials were perfect, and who knew Dylan McDermott could be this funny as a political ninja? The problem is that the movie works best as a series of scenes but doesn’t add up to much more. Some of those scenes are hilarious, and others are just passable lowbrow entertainment. Then the movie tries to foster a happy ending, with the evil business tycoons (an obvious avatar of the Koch brothers) foiled. I do not believe that satire can have a happy ending. It undercuts the angry, sardonic message of the movie. It’s just not the right fit for the genre. Alas, The Campaign tries to insert some pathos into the mix and it feels false and far too tidy. As for summer comedies, the movie has a few killer jokes and an amiable presence, plus a very short running time so as not to wear out its welcome. Like most politicians argue… you could do worse.
Nate’s Grade: B-
You’ve seen this movie before, and pretty recently too given in the influx of superhero tales in the last decade. Megamind recycles heavily from numerous other super forbears, and yet this animated tale about a tired hero (voiced by Brad Pitt) and his inept nemesis (Will Ferrell). While it’s never as funny as its premise and cast should make it, the movie does pack a lot of fun and even a little bit of heart. The action sequences are inventive enough and the movie has a tone that drifts from sincere to self-conscious satire, while never settling down but doing enough right not to inflame your sense of irritation. The concepts of identity, good and evil, the duality of man, striking a life for your own… they’re all here. It’s a sloppy message that feels copied out of a plot playbook. Ferrell is funny but a bit more restrained than I like him. I think he works best when he cranks up his absurdist tendencies with a jolt of enthusiasm. Megamind doesn’t come close to approaching the magic, thrills, and emotions of How to Train Your Dragon, but it’s still many ways better than stuff like Monsters vs. Aliens and Shark Tale. It’s overly familiar story given a super spit shine.
Nate’s Grade: B
Does money make something funnier? I have always been hesitant about Hollywood comedies that overspend like crazy, running up staggering budgets. In 2007, Evan Almighty became the most expensive comedy of all time, toppling a $200 million budget thanks to costly special effects and animal wrangling (and those assorted Steve Carell beards couldn’t have been cheap either). Did all that spending make the movie any funnier? Comedy is a cost-friendly enterprise because it all truly starts at conception: the setup, the payoff, the buildup, the delivery. If an idea isn’t funny at its core conception, it’s usually not going to be funny no matter how expensive the window dressing. Here comes a big budget Land of the Lost movie with Will Ferrell in the lead, and I ask again, does more money make something funnier?
Dr. Rick Marshall (Ferrell) has devoted his life, and taxpayer dollars, to researching time portals that open dimensions that combine the past, present, and future. After an interview on the Today Show with a hostile Matt Lauer, Marshall becomes a laughingstock in the scientific community. Holly (Anna Friel) is a science grad student who believes in his crackpot theories. The two of them use Marshall’s tachyon device to find a cosmic hotpot. It just so happens to be in the middle of a low-rent attraction, “The Devil’s Canyon” run by hick opportunist, Will (Danny McBride). He takes Marshall and Holly along on a tour of the cheap attraction but then suddenly the earth shakes and the people fall off a waterfall into a time portal. They awake in a strange land filled with dinosaurs, primate people like the hairy sidekick Chaka (Jorma Taccone), hissing lizard creatures known as Sleestaks, and all sorts of prehistoric danger. The only way home is to find the tachyon device to open another portal. Too bad the device, too, is lost.
The original Land of the Lost TV show was a dopey sci-fi show for kids that had silly plots, terrible special effects, and the unmistakable feeling that the creators and writers often indulged in psychotropic substances. But let’s face it folks, the Land of the Lost TV show was squarely aimed at kids and does not hold up well. You could seek the zippers on the back of the Sleestaks. I don’t intend to trample anyone’s good time nostalgic feelings, but this show was just not very good. However, the movie almost plays like a loving parody of the material. It doesn’t point out the flaws of the original TV show in a meta-critical manner like the Brady Bunch movies; Land of the Lost channels a childish, goofball tone and brazenly heads along at full-steam. This movie was marketed as a “family” film based on a children’s TV series. Warning to parents considering taking young children: this is not a family movie. This is a raunchy PG-13 comedy with plenty of kid-friendly gross out humor and parent-spooking sexual humor. There are masturbation gags, an F-bomb, an out-of-the-blue Jesus-on-the-cross comparison that could raise eyebrows, and all sorts of crude behavior, including two instances of self-imposed dinosaur golden showers.
The movie is completely juvenile, crude, surprisingly raunchy for a PG-13 movie, and yet it has an absurdist bemusement to be had. If you can catch on to its wonky wavelength that manages to satirize the original series, there are subversive, guilty pleasures to be had. There is a campy and irreverent spirit that I was able to latch onto and enjoy. I’m not saying Ferrell dousing himself in dinosaur urine is witty in any regard, but I laughed. When he does it a second time I laughed some more. This is like a gonzo update of a Saturday morning children’s series, like what would happen if Terry Gilliam took a crack at writing an adaptation (not to sully Gilliam’s creative integrity, the poop and pee jokes will be added by a screenwriting hack in a re-write). The jokes seem aimed at kids, like the bodily function stuff, but then there are jokes that will certainly go over the kids’ heads, like a drawn out sequence where the boys partake in a drug trip thanks to a local narcotic fruit. The TV series has been adapted into a big budget Will Ferrell comedy, a mixture of juvenile gags and goofball hijinks with a wink, which will alienate fans of the original series. It’s not sophisticated high comedy for adults but then the jokes can also be too wordy for small kids to understand why it should be funny. The opening scuffle between Marshall and Lauer is a good setup and also provides a satisfying payoff by the movie’s conclusion. Not all of the jokes work and there are too many scenes that drag on, long after the joke has already been given a burial ceremony. Many jokes are one-sceners and don’t build into something stronger and more satisfying than an in-the-moment chuckle. Land of the Lost is a somewhat muddled, somewhat confusing, somewhat chintzy, somewhat bizarre movie, which makes it an oddly fitting adaptation of its odd source.
The plot is a thin strand to tie the comedic setup together, but the movie also has dashes of adventure and action. Marshall insults a T-rex by ridiculing its brain size, and the T-rex becomes an ongoing antagonist, chasing the trio all around this so-called land of the lost. Usually every action beat is tied into some form of a comic setting, like when Marshall has to rescue his special tachyon machine by singing and dancing to “I Hope I Get It” from the Broadway show, A Chorus Line. Director Brad Siberling (Lemony Snicket, City of Angels) and production designer Bo Welch (Batman) make this movie look downright gorgeous. The trippy production design is Oscar-worthy. I enjoyed the visual landscape of this cosmic dumping ground, where a desert could be strewn with odd fixtures like a Viking ship or a gas station sign or a motel pool. The special effects are fairly good as well, especially adding detail and personality to the T-rex. This is a high-gloss comedy that might appeal to Salvador Dali if Dali had a secret love for defecation humor and boobs (maybe not as much with the latter).
The actors make the material better; thanks to Ferrell and McBride I was able to laugh at churlish humor that I might otherwise have scoffed at. This movie had me laughing at the basest humor, jokes chronicling the assured comedic assets of the female mammary and, well, dino pee. But you know what, context and an appealing actor with good comedic command can make anything funny. Ferrell and McBride have great comedic chemistry and the two of them know how to take a semi-lame joke and give it life with just the right delivery. Granted, Ferrell is playing the same character he has been for years, the sweet-hearted idiot man-child, and McBride (Pineapple Express, TV’s Eastbound and Down) is playing a toned down version of his blustery insincere jerk, and Friel (TV’s Pushing Daisies) is there essentially to be a love interest/straight man/source for boob groping. At one point, Holly rips away her pant legs for no good reason other than it allows the camera to get some high-grade butt shots of Friel in her short shorts.
I had fun with Land of the Lost and I’m not too ashamed to admit it. I enjoyed most of this psychedelic adaptation and grooved to its absurd, antisocial, irreverent spirit. It’s loosely based on the 1970s TV show by Sid and Marty Krofft, but this is a positive given that the original series was dumb. Not that this movie is intellectually riveting. This isn’t a daring movie or a cleverly diverting comedy, and it has unnecessary moments where they cram six pages of scientific nonsense into a one-minute exposition dump, but Ferrell and his time-traveling companions kept me smiling more often than not thanks to their camaraderie, improvisation skills, and ability to transcend the sophomoric material. It’s a silly mess but Land of the Lost is an entertaining time as long as you lower expectations and know what you’re getting into, dino urine and boob groping and everything.
Nate’s Grade: B