Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Zach Woods, Miranda Otto, Zoë Chao, Kristofer Hivju, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford and Giulio Berruti.
A family is tested when the father flees, leaving his family behind, in the face of a potentially deadly avalanche.
Downhill was a weird proposition from the start. On the one hand, there was nothing about the chilly, subtle Scandi drama Force Majeure that suggested it would benefit from an English language remake. However, on the other, the casting of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was interesting, the presence of Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong was encouraging and directing duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash produced something special with their debut feature The Way, Way Back in 2013. The resulting movie is exactly as muddled and unusual as all of that suggests.
Its central conceit follows the blueprint of Force Majeure closely, with a family troubled by a bizarre event during a ski holiday. When an avalanche barrels towards their idyllic mountainside restaurant, Pete (Ferrell) scoops up his mobile phone and legs it, leaving wife Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and their kids behind. In the ensuing days, relations are frosty, especially when Pete seems glued to his phone throughout the supposedly escapist trip and invites his work colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and his hashtag-loving girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao) to come and meet them.
When Faxon and Rash stick to the tone and style of Force Majeure, the film trucks along nicely, with their trademark wit seeping through alongside some humour-of-mundanity skits that feel like textbook Jesse Armstrong. But sadly, Downhill is often scuppered by the imperatives of its American-ness. The emotions that original director Ruben Östlund allowed to fester as they remained unsaid beneath the surface are stated outright in this movie, which has a tendency towards brief, blazing rows rather than lengthy, verbose moral debates.
Downhill is actually more interesting in the world it sketches around those two protagonists, broadening the canvas somewhat. There’s certainly a sense of low-hanging fruit to the way it takes aim at the Instagram-loving free spirits of Pete’s colleague and his partner, who want to #liveyourbestlife and exist with #noagenda but still have to be back at work on Monday, but the jokes often land. Miranda Otto, too, proves to be a comic standout as a sexually liberal member of hotel staff who proudly declares the resort “the Ibiza of the Alps”. There’s also a fun cameo for Kristofer Hivju, who appeared in Force Majeure and subsequently played cult icon Tormund in Game of Thrones, as a surly resort safety official.
Much of what works about Downhill orbits around Louis-Dreyfus, who consistently works tirelessly to elevate the rather straightforward, slender material – it almost stretches to fill the brief 86-minute running time. Often, her role is to sit next to Ferrell and react wordlessly but explicitly to his frantic blabbering and it’s a role she embraces with an array of sassy, snarky and downright contemptuous facial expressions. The way she responds to Ferrell’s account of the avalanche with a head tilt of slightly quizzical moral outrage is a terrific feat of comic acting. In the face of her towering work here, Ferrell’s performance feels muted and lacking in the necessary nuance.
It’s simply impossible to watch Downhill without feeling that it’s just a retread of Force Majeure with all of its prickly edges carefully sanded off for an international audience. There are new comedy beats that provoke chuckles, but the additional narrative threads – Louis-Dreyfus’ flirtation with a devastatingly sexy ski instructor – only serve to cloud the debate at the original movie’s heart and make both of the lead characters less sympathetic.
Faxon and Rash do pull an interesting move with an altered finale, but even that fails to fully commit to anything that would’ve made it emotionally or narratively complex. No longer a cloudy, chilly drama about relationships, this is effectively a broad Hollywood comedy with a side order of people yelling in rooms. Outside of a couple of interesting flourishes, this is effectively a poster child for why interesting European movies should not be remade. It’s not terrible; just a bit bland.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.