If you’ve never seen Force Majeure, the 2014 French/Swedish production, then its 2020 American remake will likely be amusing enough for you. However, if you have seen the original, then you’ll realize Downhill doesn’t quite succeed as a sublime comedy of manners like its predecessor did. Even though stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell are game, their casting, as well as some other issues, prevent it from the full comedic potency of Ruben Ostlund’s Cannes-winning Jury Prize six years ago.
Remakes are always a challenge, particularly if the original is successful. It’s a lot to live up to. Even more difficult is trying to redo a film from another country. As often is the case, the tone of the film is wholly connected to its country of origin. Such is the conundrum of adapting Force Majeure into English. There was a Swedish dryness to the 2014 material, a sly underplaying that made the unraveling of a marriage spool out more surprisingly, even subtly. It helped too that Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli weren’t well-known international stars, so as we watched the twisting tension build between the Swedish couple they played, we were surprised, even floored. Audiences had no preconceived notions of the two and took their characters at face value. Thus, when their marriage crumbled, it shook us more.
With Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, we know their comedic styles very well, perhaps too well. They’re beloved comedy talents, easily two of the greatest on the planet, but with their reputations come expectations of laugh-out-loud comedy here. Downhill just isn’t that kind of film, though it sometimes wants to be far more farcical than Force Majeure ever was. Filmmakers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash work admirably to try to emulate some of the low-key humor of the original film and direct their stars to play it realistically, but we keep expecting Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus to turn this comedy into something bigger and broader.
The two play Pete and Billie Staunton, a well-to-do couple on a ski vacation in the Alps with their two junior-high aged boys Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford). In the first scene, as they struggle to get a family photo taken together, it illustrates both what’s right here, and what’s wrong. The four aren’t on the same page, unable to pose together without issue or distraction, stating the theme of a family turmoil. On the downside though, the scene plays out too broadly, already tipping us to Ferrell’s hapless dad, as well as Louis-Dreyfus’ angsty wife and mom.
The expensive resort they’re staying at, along with the stunning scenery, should wholly hold their attention. Pete, however, would rather hang out with his work buddy Zach (Zach Woods) who’s vacationing in the area too, and keeps texting him to come on by. Meanwhile, Billie is unable to truly relax, and the boys want more time on their own to play video games and watch movies on their tablets. Faxon and Rash showcase the wedges well, presenting four people struggling to look past their own noses to enjoy the bounty all around them.
Then, during an outside lunch on the resort’s deck, a near-disaster shakes them all to the core. A controlled avalanche rumbles down the mountain, terrifying the restaurant patrons who fear it’s going to bury them in snow. Pete panics and rushes off the deck, with his cellphone in tow, but not his family. He leaves them behind, cowering and preparing for their icy doom. But then, when the snowy fog dissipates, he returns and tries to laugh it all off. Pete lies, telling them he was going for help. The looks on his family’s faces suggest a far different interpretation.
From there, the tensions continue to snowball. Pete tries to overcompensate by acting like a doting dad, cheerleading every activity together, but Billie can barely contain her disgust. She now looks at her betrothed with utter contempt, disheartened by the realization that her husband was not only a coward but won’t even be honest about what happened. As for the kids, they are equally repelled by their doofus dad.
In Force Majeure, the tension ratcheted up little by little, with the proud Nordic couple struggling to express their feelings and fears. It was a big surprise that dad was a selfish coward, as was the disintegration of what we thought was a happy duo. With Ferrell playing so many dolts in his day, we expect his character here to turn into a fool all too easily. There’s no surprise in it. It is unusual for him to being player straighter, but he’s still playing close to his resume in this film.
As for Louis-Dreyfus, she’s done well in roles farther afield like Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, and she succeeds similarly in Downhill. There’s even a sadness in her performance that’s quietly heartbreaking. Of course, we’ve seen the actress play characters who were famous for losing their collective shit over and over again on Seinfeld and Veep, so it isn’t very surprising when her Billie finally melts down here.
Other elements don’t quite gel here either. Miranda Otto has a ball playing a sexual cougar prowling the resort, but the performance belongs in a broader film, not one that’s striving for realism like this. Billie’s near fling with a ski instructor (Giulio Berruti) feels like a cornball, comedy cliché as well, though one has to hand it to Louis-Dreyfus for making it play as sexy and tense as it does.
Turning the children from adolescents in Force Majeure into near teens here does the remake no favors either. In the original, the mom felt abandoned by her husband and all the more lonely due to her children being too young to be aware of all that’s occurring. Here, the boys are too knowing and all too easily side with their mom in contempt of dad. Neither kid has much personality either, and that disappoints as well.
Downhill might have been more successful if the leads were played by actors known for more serious roles. Then, when their consternation starts to ratchet up towards comedy, it would’ve felt fresher. With Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, we expect big laughs, even though the script by Jesse Armstrong, Faxon, and Rash delivers only modest ones. Remaking foreign films is tricky, especially trying to Americanize one as subtle and insinuating as Force Majeure. A noble effort was made here, although the endeavor was far too much of an uphill battle.
View the trailer of Downhill below: