Synopsis – Barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps, a married couple is thrown into disarray as they are forced to reevaluate their lives and how they feel about each other.
My Take – On paper this remake of the 2014 Swedish comedy-drama, Force Majeure, seems like a sure shot winner. After all it is helmed by accomplished actors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the Dean from Community), who won an Oscar for penning the 2011 family drama The Descendants, and previously directed 2013’s warm and witty The Way Way Back, is co-written by Jesse Armstrong, the creator of HBO‘s currently hottest hit show, Succession, and stars iconic comedic actors in the form of Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who co-produced the film and received the blessing of Ruben Östlund, the original film’s writer/director, for the American remake.
Yet somehow getting through its 86 minute is a huge uphill battle. Mainly as despite the comedic talent involved the film attempts to play like a slow-moving character study with knockout scenery, and cringe dominating the screenplay.
Although it has a few relatable and amusing moments, it just mostly wastes the considerable talents involved and leaves you feeling very uncomfortable and unpleasant once it is over.
The story follows Pete Staunton (Will Ferrell) and Billie Staunton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), members of an above average American family, who with their young sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), are on a vacation at a fancy ski resort in the Swiss Alps. While they all seem to be having fun skiing on the mountains, Pete continues to mourn the passing of his father eight months prior, a travel agent who never traveled.
However, on their second day on the slopes, while they are getting ready to order lunch at a cafe on an open terrace, a series of controlled avalanches, which are supposed to keep things safe around the hotel, starts hurtling down the mountain toward them, while Billie tightens herself around her children, Pete picks up his phone and just runs away, leaving his family to fend for themselves.
When the white-out clears and everyone’s okay, the three are left in a state of shock over Pete’s reaction and further strains the moment by refusing to even discuss what happened. With a few more days to go for the vacation to be over, the tensions between the couple ratchet even tighter when Pete invites his younger co-worker Zach (Zach Woods), who is in the midst of a freewheeling trek across Europe with his even younger girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao), to hang out with them.
The film starts off dull, and as the title would suggest, it is all downhill from there. The premise has potential to be interesting, but this film does not go into any dark or more mature territory, and plays itself depressingly straight. Scenes just happen with no satisfying payoff, and then move on to the next uninspired moment. Much of the film is devoted to Peter scrambling to reestablish common ground with the prickly Billie.
The issue is not only that Peter ran off in a moment of panic, but also his subsequent behavior. At first acting as if nothing untoward has happened, he then grudgingly begins referring to the event, downplaying its significance.
In attempting to whitewash the entire incident as no big deal, he not only refuses to acknowledge Billie’s genuine terror in the moment, but also belittles her for having felt it. Worse, he keeps contradicting her account with his alternative version, trying to control the truth after the fact. And it’s especially pathetic the way he tries to worm his way back into the illusion of solidarity with her against the frosty resort rep to whom they complain about the incident, to rep played by Kristofer Hivju, who co-starred in Force Majeure as the husband’s visiting co-worker.
If the film would have been more focused on Billie’s side it might at least have been able to generate some righteous anger, but every once in a while, it one drifts back to moping around with Pete, with the audience hoping that he’ll finally rise to the occasion.
Yes, there are flashes of humor but they are few and appropriately dark. With most of the laughs coming at the expense of Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a hard-partying hotelier, the remaining few end up appearing jarring. However, the film’s final moment comes as a true resolution with a strong gotcha ya for a film that never fully finds its way.
Surprisingly, both Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus feel out of place in their roles, and the execution of the film’s story does not support their performances in any way. It is one thing to have unlikable characters, but these ones are borderline unwatchable. When not acting like they are in depression, they ferociously attack each other with no sense of character development or humanity, and we as an audience are unfortunately stuck with them for most of the film.
In other roles, Miranda Otto, Zach Woods, Zoë Chao and Giulio Berruti are wasted, while the young sons played by Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford are alright. On the whole, ‘Downhill’ is a frustratingly dull and boring comedy drama that clearly got lost in translation.
Rated – R
Run Time – 86 minutes