Artnewspress: Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus star in this timid remake of a dark Swedish vacation comedy.
“Downhill” is a vacation-gone-wrong comedy that lives up to its ill-advised title. It stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as a couple on an Alpine ski trip, which is not the worst premise. They bicker and blunder within the parameters of their familiar comic personas, and you almost believe that their characters (Billie and Pete) could actually be married. He is a needy, amiable, slightly hysterical doofus. She is impatient and anxious. Their twin preadolescent sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Ford) barely have personalities at all, but as the family arrives in Austria it seems possible that the audience will have a good time even if the characters don’t.
But it doesn’t work out that way. “Downhill,” directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (whose previous vacation comedy was “The Way, Way Back”), is a remake of “Force Majeure,” a 2014 Swedish film directed by Ruben Ostlund. Comparing the two is a dispiriting exercise. Ostlund’s version is a sharp, relentless satire of masculine insecurity and middle-class complacency, threading genuine discomfort among improbable laughs. The humor in “Downhill” is broader, which is fine in itself, but the movie is also sloppy, timid and unsure of its tone. It isn’t disturbing, just annoying.
Early in their stay at a luxurious mountain resort — after they meet the sexed-up Euro-trash-caricature concierge (Miranda Otto) but before the arrival of the hashtag-crazy millennial-caricature couple (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao) — Pete and Billie experience something that threatens to destabilize their relationship. A “controlled avalanche” set off by the resort’s management looks as if it’s going out of control and heading for the outdoor restaurant where the family is about to have lunch. Pete flees in a panic, grabbing his phone and leaving Billie with the terrified children. Later, he denies and downplays his cowardice, while Billie seethes.
This is pretty much exactly what happens in “Force Majeure.” The idea that a split-second, unthinking action like Pete’s could reveal a flaw in his character and a schism in his marriage is potent enough to sustain a second movie. But Faxon and Rash, who wrote the screenplay with Jesse Armstrong, lack the nerve or the imagination to make the idea their own, or to make it work with a cast of American comic performers. There are some jokey parts, some weepy bits, a sexy moment and a few fine displays of anger from Louis-Dreyfus, but they’re all just thrown together like salted nuts and cheap candies in a snack mix.
Like too many American movie comedies these days, “Downhill” seems afraid of its own shadow. The swearing and the drug references can’t disguise a paralyzing panic — about parenthood, sexual politics, family dynamics, work-life balance or anything else that might actually be interesting or risky. The film isn’t sure whether to take Pete’s side or Billie’s, or if it should really take a side at all, and so it hovers like an insincere friend, nodding and chuckling and refusing to judge.
The result is a small disaster. Not a completely terrible movie — mostly thanks to Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus — but one that strands its stars in situations that are at once impossible and insufficiently challenging. “Downhill” gets way out over its skis, even though it never leaves the bunny slope.
Rated R. Some salty talk. Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes.