An observational comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as a couple dealing with escalating marital tensions during a ski vacation in the Austrian Alps, “Downhill” is the American remake of “Force Majeure,” a 2014 film by Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund that, by any measure, was far superior. Funny, dramatic, tense and tonally unpredictable, Ostlund’s commentary on marriage and gender roles was one of the most delightful surprises of that year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won a jury prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.
Thus continues the dubious practice as old as the movie industry itself, whereby a smart, entertaining and original movie from overseas is adapted for American audiences, leaching most of what made it so good in the first place. A French feel-good movie titled “The Intouchables” starring the irresistible duo of François Cluzet and Omar Sy becomes an instant forgettable called “The Upside,” with Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart. The astonishing vampire thriller “Let the Right One In,” by Swedish director Tomas Alfredson, becomes the okay-not-great vampire thriller “Let Me In,” with Chloë Grace Moretz. The tautly effective Argentine political drama “The Secret in Their Eyes” drops a definite article — and much of its potency — to become “Secret in Their Eyes,” with Julia Roberts and Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Hollywood has been repurposing foreign properties for decades, and not always to deleterious effect: After all, “Some Like it Hot” and 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven” were remakes, and even the most die-hard fans of the classic Hong Kong crime thriller “Infernal Affairs” could admit that Martin Scorsese’s Bostonized version, “The Departed,” was wicked pissah.
As often as not, the original directors will gladly cannibalize their own work, eager to work with Hollywood stars, gain entree to the American movie business and attract wider audiences. When director Sebastian Lelio made the delightful Chilean coming-of-middle-age romance “Gloria” in 2013 it received ecstatic reviews and about $6 million in theatrical receipts; when Julianne Moore appeared in Lelio’s American and less well-received remake, it scored nearly twice that. Similarly, Hans Petter Moland’s “Cold Pursuit” — a nifty remake of his 2014 action comedy “In Order of Disappearance” — made more than $75 million as a Liam Neeson vehicle, compared with less than $1 million when its biggest star was Stellan Skarsgard.
Wider exposure and industry cachet aside, though, most American remakes are but pale copies of the ingenious, eccentric, culturally specific movies that preceded them. The challenge has been to convince viewers in the United States to overcome the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles” (as Bong cleverly put it when he won the Golden Globe) and encounter those films in their original form, on their own terms.
“Parasite’s” surprise victory at the Oscars suggests that those barriers might be teetering, if not toppling — a development that was anticipated last year when the Mexican drama “Roma” came close to winning best picture. Aptly enough, that film was produced by Netflix, the streaming company that has made the Spanish-language series “Narcos” and “Elite” hits, as well as “Baby” (Italian), “Babylon Berlin” (German), “Call My Agent!” (French) and others. Thanks to the universal semaphore of algorithms, Netflix and its fellow streaming services are not only conditioning American viewers to read and watch at the same time, they’re making once-obscure movies available to communities that don’t have the art-house screens to play them.
As catholic as audiences are becoming in their tastes and viewing habits, it’s the filmmakers themselves who might need to readjust their notions of success: When “Parasite” was enjoying its most dizzying awards-season buzz, Bong announced that he would be co-producing a limited series based on the movie for HBO. No word yet on whether the show will be in English or Korean, but Mark Ruffalo has been mentioned as a possible co-star. Sometimes an inch can feel like a mile.