Hollywood knockoffs of foreign-language films almost never work. Remember the recent Miss Bala (based on Mexico’s 2012 Oscars submission of the same name) and The Upside (the Kevin Hart/Bryan Cranston version of the 2011 French hit The Intouchables)? Downhill, an Americanized remake of 2014’s brilliant Force Majeure, turns Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s black-comic provocation into a bland muddle. Östlund’s prickly moral fable felt like if Ingmar Bergman directed a National Lampoon’s Ski Vacation. The dreary and disconcertingly unfunny Downhill leaves you feeling nothing. The rich possibilities in the casting of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus — comic icons with genuine dramatic chops (see: him in Stranger Than Fiction and her in Enough Said) — go frustratingly unexplored. Instead, co-directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon — the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants — don’t seem to know what to do with the script they shaped from an initial go-round by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong. Downhill is sure as hell not the farce it’s been advertised to look like in the trailer. And you’ll search in vain for Force Majeure’s grounding in existential crisis. I don’t know what the Swedes would call Downhill. What’s Swedish for an unholy mess?
Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell play Billie and Pete Stanton, a middle-class couple with enough disposable income to take their two sons, Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford), on a weeklong ski vacation in Austria. Fissures in the marriage can be seen in the tense lines around Billie’s mouth when Pete’s reliance on checking his smartphone amounts to an addiction. But they go through the motions — until an incident on day two of their vacation. With all four Stantons about to enjoy lunch on a mountainside terrace, they witness a controlled avalanche that seems to be not so controlled. In fact, it’s coming right at them. The approach prompts Pete to grab his phone and run like a rabbit in ski boots, leaving his wife and kids to face their fate without him. When the snow clears, Billie and the kids are shaken but unharmed. But Pete’s cowardice hangs in the air like an accusation that remains unspoken, at least at first.
The blunt-force impact of the scene is as effective in Downhill as it is in Force Majeure, the latter film’s title referencing a legal term for an extraordinary event or act of God that prevents parties from fulfilling a contract. Pete’s actions are a betrayal of his contract as a husband and father. Östlund gave the scene a bite that left marks, not just on the theme of fragile masculinity but on marriage itself. The softer approach of Naxon and Rash dulls that edge. Ferrell has played the man-child before, from Old School to Step Brothers, and the familiarity of his casting brings a comic note to Pete that pushes toward forgiveness. Veep star Louis-Dreyfus fares better, especially when Billie lets her husband have it in front of their sons, Pete’s coworker Zach (Zach Woods), and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao). For a moment, Downhill blazes into blistering life.
But the film quickly reverts to safe territory. The always-welcome Miranda Otto shows up as comic relief in the role of Charlotte (pronounced Char-lotta), an oversexed resort director who encourages Billie to get it on with hottie Italian ski instructor Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti) while Pete gets drunk with Zach and falls all over himself like a harmless buffoon. This is the stuff of sitcom, a cop-out that lowers the emotional stakes. Wishing to be an uncompromising art film doesn’t make it so. At 85 minutes, Downhill feels at least an hour longer by leading audiences and two talented stars down the slippery slope of conflicting intentions. Where Force Majeure went for broke, Downhill hedges its bets. For audiences, it’s a wipeout.