Tag Archives: Nat Faxon

Poles Apart


by George Wolf

If you’re a pair of American filmmakers out to remake an exceptional foreign film from the last decade, you gotta pick a side.

Are you gonna put some bankable U.S. stars up front and just add your name to someone else’s originality, or do you have a vision that can make the story your own?

To their credit, co-writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash choose the latter path for Downhill, their take on Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 stunner, Force Majeure (Turist). Faxon and Rash won an Oscar for their The Descendants screenplay – so the boys can write – but this makeover ultimately lands as a pleasant exercise stripped of the insightful bite.

The catalyst remains the same: a traumatic event changes the way a couple sees each other. Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are on a lavish ski vacation in Austria with their two sons. Eating lunch on the resort’s outdoor porch, the family is terrified when an avalanche appears to be heading right for them.

Bille clutches her children in fear, while Pete grabs his phone and runs.

Turns out it was a planned snow release and everyone’s fine, but the Stanton marriage has been shaken to its core, no matter how hard Pete tries to revise history with another couple (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao).

Faxon and Rash do Americanize the story well, as Billie first looks to blame the resort (“I’m an attorney!”), and Pete, continually wallowing in the loss of his father eight months prior, becomes a personification of rationalized selfishness.

But while Ostlund used the secondary couple as a device to invite us into a near clinical deconstruction of societal assumptions, Faxon and Rash introduce a new “B” story involving an aggressive resort concierge (Amanda Otto) who lives on the wild side. It’s an uneven trade of insight for zany, and can’t move the film from an uneven headspace that’s too serious for comedy but too light for drama.

Downhill does give us the chance to see Will and Julia go head to head, and that is no small treat. Ferrell is a natural as the big awkward goof trying to come to terms with himself, but make no mistake, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the reason to see this movie.

Billie is confused, hurt and angry, and Louis-Dreyfus sells it all with total authenticity, often with little to no dialog. She finds real depth in terrain that’s often shallow (such as Billie’s flirtations with a younger ski instructor), ultimately offering more proof that, in case you’ve missed the last few decades, JLD is a flat-out treasure.

And much like Billy Ray’s updated Secret in Their Eyes five years ago, Downhill has a humdinger of an ending to deal with. In the original film, Ostlund gave us an organic twist that managed to re-frame all that came before. Faxon and Rash’s take feels a bit like hitting the Ohio slopes after a trip to Vermont.

There are similarities, but the thrill is gone.

If you’ve haven’t seen Force Majeure, Downhill is a perfectly acceptable vehicle for two well-loved stars. If you have, well, see it again.

There’s Heart in the Wizz


by George Wolf


When I was young, my brother and I called it “the way back,” that place at the rear of an old station wagon just big enough for a kid to take refuge.

Nat Faxon and Jim Rash call that same area, and their new film, The Way, Way Back, a poignant and often very funny look at the bittersweet awkwardness of adolescence.

Faxon and Rash actually wrote the script years ago, but couldn’t get it sold. Then they won an Oscar in 2011 for co-writing The Descendants, and decided to spend their new Hollywood capital by resurrecting the old project and directing it themselves.

The centerpiece is 14 year old Duncan (Liam James), who is truly underjoyed at having to spend summer vacation with his mom Pam (Toni Collette), her tool boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter.

Things start to look up when Duncan stumbles into a job at Water Wizz, the local water park (Water Wizz!). Falling under the tutelage of Owen, the Wizz manager (Sam Rockwell) Duncan gets a fresh outlook, as well as confidence enough to chat up cutie Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb).

Faxon and Rash establish themselves as a team with a bright future. Though less assured than The Descendants (the lack of director Alexander Payne might have something to do with that), The Way, Way Back is full of crisp dialogue, well formed characters and situations that, for the most part, ring true.

The ensemble cast (which also includes Maya Rudolph, Allison Janney, Amanda Peet, Rob Corddry, Faxon and Rash) is splendid, with Carell impressively playing against type, and the young James crafting Duncan as the wince-inducing personification of teenage nerdery.

As good as everyone is, this is Rockwell’s show to steal, and he’s hilariously guilty. A freewheeling mix of Bill Murray and Hawkeye Pierce, Owen unleashes a barrage of one liners and real world philosophy. As Duncan becomes more comfortable with his water fun family, a nice dichotomy is created between the d-bag father figure Trent smugly thinks he is, and the supercool one Owen easily becomes.

Some moments are a bit forced, but on the whole, this is the rare coming of age story that feels fresh. With a big heart that both adults and teens should find relatable, The Way, Way Back is the surprise gem of the summer.