Updated: Jul 12, 2021
Downhill, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, is based on the 2014 Swedish movie Force Majeure. Their plots are the same, but the way they deal with it is very different. Force Majeure is a dark comedy analyzing two people who reach a dramatic crossroads in their marriage. Downhill is a much more broadly comedic take on a couple hitting a sudden stumbling block. The story is still good, with thought-provoking themes. Unfortunately, its cheap humor lessens the impact of the crisis the characters are struggling with by a substantial amount. It made it extremely difficult to care.
I try not to compare movies, even remakes; I like to judge everything on its own merits. That said, it is hard not to be disappointed when one is so good and the other is not at all.
An American family is on a European ski trip. One morning, while they are eating breakfast outside looking at the mountains, there is an avalanche (it is controlled though, at the time, it does not feel that way). Everyone is terrified and the husband runs inside, abandoning his family. The rest of the story watches the fallout from that moment.
A movie is not about its story; it is about how it tells its story. The gulf in quality between the original and its remake proves this concept. This is a review of Downhill, not Force Majeure (which I strongly urge you to seek out instead), so I will try to remain focused on my issues with this specific movie.
For starters, there is the uneven tone. It jumps between goofy comedy (mainly about the differences between Americans and Europeans, especially in the way they treat sexuality) and more serious conversations about what happened and how they feel about it. They just do not fit comfortably together. There are funny actors here, but the screenplay works against them. There are a couple of small moments that are amusing, however the silly caricatures followed by bursts of real, pained, feelings awkwardly bump into each other. It wants to have it both ways; mockery mixed with genuine emotion. It is not skillful enough to pull it off. For the most part, it is a comedy, but its style gets in the way of its story truly clicking and making its points.
That is a shame because its stars have some strong scenes. Louis-Dreyfus is Billie, a wife/mother who is unable to comprehend her husband’s actions. She brings an exhausted passion to the role, but the way she arrogantly judges everyone they meet gets incredibly tiresome. Ferrell is Pete, a husband/father still mourning the death of his own dad eight months earlier (a development mostly used as a lame running gag). He downplays his usual energy, showing a regular guy who does not understand what is happening in his life. It feels like he is not asked to do as much as he could have with Pete. The immediate aftermath of the avalanche, where Pete returns to the table, ordering soup like nothing happened, and Billie plays along, clearly in shock, is fantastic. It suggests what this could have been. Sadly, it somehow always finds the wrong notes.
Everything has to be spelled out as plainly as possible, giving us clunky dialogue and instances where the characters behave in a way I could not quite believe. The screenplay does not allow for subtlety, a big problem in a story about a troubled marriage where the husband and wife still love each other.
It was adapted by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Jesse Armstrong. Faxon and Rash, who also directed, won an Oscar in 2012 for writing The Descendants. They cowrote/directed 2013’s The Way Way Back. Armstrong was nominated for an Oscar in 2010 for cowriting In the Loop. All three of those displayed a wit and intelligence completely lacking here. Downhill (80 minutes without the end credits) was the work of talented people, based on a very good movie. Yet it is a definite misfire that has no idea how to deal with its subject matter. Everyone involved will undoubtedly go on to do much better things, so let’s be nice and pretend this never happened.
1½ out of 5
Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Billie
Will Ferrell as Pete
Zach Woods as Zach
Zoe Chao as Rosie
Miranda Otto as Charlotte
Julian Grey as Finn
Ammon Jacob Ford as Emerson
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash