Downhill is an American remake of the European film Force Majeure. Although not widely seen in the United States, Force Majeure won top prizes at Cannes. It achieved cultish status with its exacting directorial style, and deadpan black comedy. The film is so ruthless in its excavation of its characters – and the institutions they represent – that there is an apocalyptic feel to the drama. To their credit, directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash do not attempt to recreate the style and feel of the original film. They opt for more something more accessible, although that gambit leads to unintentional, gnawing tedium.
Both films share the same setting, more or less. Downhill takes place at a ski resort in Austria, one where Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) take a holiday with their two boys. The script, co-written by Faxon/Rash with Jesse Armstrong, wastes no time in finding comic discomfort. Australian actor Miranda Otto plays Charlotte, an overzealous concierge who scandalizes Pete and Billie by discussing her sexuality in an open way. This is a broad caricature, and while Otto is more than up to the task, there is a dissonance between Charlotte and the film’s central tension.
After a day skiing, Faxon and Rash create a motif of how Pete and Billie share bathroom time. There are two sinks in their luxurious bathroom that face each other, and on the first night there is a familiar intimacy as they both prefer the same side. The following day, however, there is an important incident: as the family considers lunch outside, a controlled avalanche begins. The snow cascades down the mountain and shows no sign of stopping. Once it reaches the lodge, everyone outside panics. Pete grabs his phone and runs to safety, leaving Billie and his sons at the table. No one is hurt, but Billie is rattled. She is also angry because Pete will not acknowledge what he did, effectively gaslighting her. They no longer share the same sink.
The rest of the film is the fallout from the avalanche, with Pete and Billie growing further apart. Downhill gives Pete some backstory – he lost his father, and is still grieving – as if Faxon and Rash want to even the playing field. This is one many unforced errors, since part of what makes the premise so funny is the husband’s inexplicable cognitive dissonance. Another crucial difference is how Ruben Östlund, the director of Force Majeure, shot the family at a dispassionate distance. This gave the audience time to observe and judge, fully grasping the breadth of the husband’s mistake. Faxon and Rash are not so patient. With every cut and comic beat, they make it clear just what you are supposed to think, so the eventual release is nowhere as satisfying.
It is admittedly unfair to discuss Downhill entirely in terms of its source material. On its own terms, though, it suffers from a problem that plagues many satirical TV comedies. The film has too much affection for its characters, so Faxon and Rash pull back instead of showing the ferocious ugliness that can define the unpleasant episodes in any marriage. On top of that, Will Ferrell is wildly miscast. His Anchorman machismo would not work for Pete, so instead he opts for shyness, an inward performance that we saw in films like Stranger than Fiction. He wants you to know Pete is a good guy at heart. So do the filmmakers, and that yearning is a bit cowardly. Louis-Dreyfus fares better because she has little problem with caustic, prickly characters. What is surprising is how she effectively underplays the terror of recreating the avalanche.
Aside from the slow-burn argument between Pete and Billie, Downhill includes broadly comic scenes with other couples. Pete’s colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao) are smarmy caricatures, who exist primarily as a metaphor for Pete and Billie’s lost youth (it turns out that, shocker, people who are living perfect lives on Instagram are not that perfect). Kristofer Hivju, aka Tormund from Game of Thrones, is the only Force Majeure actor to appear here, except his intensity is wasted on another lazy scene about Europeans acting so weird. This film is less than ninety minutes long, half an hour less than Force Majeure, and still is a slog. The problem is that Faxon and Rash create one too many comic set-pieces, crafting them in service of a laugh, and not the nature of their characters.
This is the first film from Faxon and Rash since their debut The Way Way Back. That film is also about a family vacation gone awry, except from the perspective of a sullen kid who resents his bullying stepfather. American families interest these filmmakers, although only up to a point. They lose interest when it comes to character development, eccentricity, or the possibility they might alienate their audience. When Downhill arrives at its bittersweet conclusion, there is little sense of relief or acknowledgment. Force Majeure, in all its clinical glory, showed more sympathy toward its hero by showing him at his lowest point. Faxon and Rash are too timid to let Pete really hit bottom, so his eventual reconciliation with Billie is all the more hollow.