I wasn’t too sure about an English language remake of the superb 2014 Swedish domestic drama “Force Majeure”. I was even less convinced after seeing the trailer for “Downhill”, an Americanized version starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I loved the original (from director/co-writer Ruben Östlund) for its subtle dark wit and dramatic gut punch. It’s careful balance of those two key elements made it the movie that it was.
Helmsmen Nat Faxon and Jim Rash co-direct and co-write (with Jesse Armstrong) “Downhill”, a follow-up to their terrific 2013 gem “The Way, Way Back”. ￼Prior to that, the pair penned the Oscar￼-winning script for Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”.￼ Here their mix of comedy and drama is far more jagged￼. It’s in the dramatic moments that we see shades of what made “Force Majeure” effective. It’s the scenes of not-so-subtle comedy that knock the story off-track.
The movie follows Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and her husband Pete (Ferrell) vacationing with their two sons at a ski resort high in the Austrian Alps. On their second day, as they sit on a deck for lunch, a controlled avalanche sends a cloud of powder barreling down the mountain and towards the restaurant. As it approaches many patrons scramble including Pete who grabs his phone and runs inside, leaving his wife and kids behind to get showered by snow.
As the cloud settles Pete returns to find his family unharmed but terribly shaken by the experience. He promptly orders lunch as if nothing happened, but his actions open a wound that slowly festers for the duration of the movie. Eventually pent-up frustrations boil to the surface and true selves are exposed, but not before potentially irreparable damage has been done to their relationships.
Östlund’s movie was essentially a existential tragedy about a seemingly sturdy marriage built on an emotional fault line. “Downhill” latches onto that idea but seems completely unsure of how far to go with it. Does it embrace the understated psychological bite of the original film or go with the more palatable studio approach? Faxon and Rash try to have it both ways and the results are frustratingly uneven. There are scenes where the tension between characters (either spoken or unspoken) is palpable and the emotions are raw and authentic. But then we’ll get a weird attempt at humor that lands with a tonal thud. This is epitomized ￼in Miranda Otto’s bizarrely out of place free-loving concierge. The character seems plucked right out of a National Lampoon movie.
Much of it has to do with the casting. Louis-Dreyfus carries the movie and frankly we don’t get enough of her on the big screen. Her performance is always at the right temperature and she drives each the film’s most potent scenes. Most importantly she shrewdly manages the aforementioned balance between drama and humor. The script lets her down occasionally, but she’s easily the film’s biggest asset.
A badly miscast Will Ferrell doesn’t fare as well and his years of playing halfwits actually hurts his character. Ferrell is hardly subtle when it comes to comedy, a truth that was etched in my subconscious from the start.￼ So even when he’s playing it serious I found myself waiting for a visual or verbal punchline. He’s just not that convincing. Even worse, he makes it hard to buy into Billie and Pete as an actually couple.￼
I can see people going into “Downhill” expecting a straight comedy strictly because of the two leads. These viewers are sure to leave disappointed. The movie’s most striking scenes are its most serious and they are driven by a fantastic Julia Louis-Dreyfus (please do more movies). She literally keeps the picture afloat. But even she can’t make the jarring attempts at comedy work or help the movie nail down any true sense of identity.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS