A couple with two young children goes on a ski vacation. While eating lunch on a mountainside patio, a controlled avalanche gets too close for comfort and dad makes a run for it to save his own skin, bringing his cellphone but abandoning his family when the situation appears to be making a turn for the worst. When the snow clears mere seconds later, the only damage done is a few overturned tables, a light dusting of powder, and what just might be an unrepairable breach in a marriage as the husband refuses to apologize for, or even admit to, his painful act of cowardice.
This story first came to screens in 2014 as Force Majeure, written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund. A critically lauded and internationally accoladed film, it wasn’t long before an American remake was in the works.
That remake is Downhill, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back) from a script co-authored by Jesse Armstrong (Succession, In The Loop), the epitome of what English-language remakes of successful foreign-language films are generally accused of being. It’s the same story, stripped of most subtext, all the loose ends and room for interpretation trimmed out and tied with a neat little bow.
Force Majeure is undeniably well-made, albeit a film I hesitate to call a comedy because it’s eagle-eyed observations of the human condition hit a little too close to home, and with a sardonic edge a bit too understated, to be laughter as opposed to grimace-inducing. Wry, slice-of-life drama feels a far more suitable label. Downhill, meanwhile, is a straightforward comedy or trying to be, because the story inherently isn’t really a laugh-out-loud sort of tale.
Downhill is, all things considered, fine—aesthetically fine, narratively fine, Will Ferrell is fine—but wholly unnecessary, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a treasure and deserves far better. As Billie, the micromanaging type A “I want to speak with a manager” kind of white lady notorious to retail and hospitality workers everywhere, she’s the most interesting character in almost every scene she’s in, even though the film forgets this at times.
Key supporting player Charlotte (Miranda Otto)—concierge, open relationship advocate, fairy godmother-type plot device—is something of a composite character with reference to the original film and often feels a little trite, not to mention the over-the-top “Swiss” accent, but Otto brings such vibrant energy to the role that I was often charmed in spite of myself. Pete and Billie’s children are an ill-defined joint entity. The Children technically have names but whenever they were specified I couldn’t keep them in mind long enough to actually write them down, so let’s not pretend like they have actual identities; one is in a worrywart phase, one isn’t, and that’s about it. Kristofer Hivju (Game of Thrones), who played a supporting role in Force Majeure, makes a cameo appearance in a totally needless scene that feels expressly designed to enable his presence to grace the remake—an understandable motivation, as it’s always good to see him, even when the circumstances are unfortunate, as these ones are.
The biggest blunder Downhill makes is feel the need to explore dad Pete’s (Will Ferrell) psyche and try to “understand” his behavior in its earnest kiddie pool depth sort of way. It’s unclear if this is simply because of the film’s aversion to subtext or to give Ferrell an opportunity to demonstrate dramatic “range”—regardless, it really doesn’t work. It’s kind of like listening to someone explain why you should find something interesting, which is inevitably a dull experience.
Downhill is fine, just fine, but it’s considerably less than the sum of its parts. A number of highly skilled creatives worked on this film, which is ultimately a technically OK but utterly uninspired retelling of a great movie 28 million Hulu subscribers already have access to.
If you want to sit in a dark room and stare at Julia Louis-Dreyfus and/or Will Ferrell on a large screen for an hour and a half, there are definitely worse ways you could spend your time and money than going to see Downhill. But if you want to see the best version of this story, watch Force Majeure.
Header Image Source: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation