The Swedish film “Force Majeure” was one of the best movies of 2014. The almost perversely perceptive dramedy about the fissures that appear (or were probably always there) in the relationship of a married couple on a ski vacation wasn’t especially funny, at least not ha-ha funny. But the at times darkly comic film was lit by flashes of human behavior so recognizable to anyone in a long relationship – wry one minute, wrenching the next – that a viewer might not know whether to laugh or cry. A winner at Cannes, it was a perfect balance of melancholic and sanguine humors, with no room, or need, for improvement.
It is therefore no surprise Hollywood had to remake it.
The real surprise, however, is that “Downhill,” starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who also has a producer credit), is respectful enough of the source material to avoid cheap laughs and maintain the original tone of acerbic honesty. It isn’t great. It’s a watered-down version of the original, but it’s still pretty good: neither wise nor profound, yet sometimes smart and with sharp elbows – especially if you have nothing with which to compare it.
Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Stanton, a married couple who are vacationing in the Austrian Alps. With their two sons, they’re staying in a fancy ski village, billed as the “Ibiza of the Alps” and geared toward party-hearty adults, not parents of rambunctious tween boys. As it happens, there’s a more appropriate family-friendly resort a mere 20 minutes away. This unfortunate booking by Pete – who throws money around like he’s trying to impress people, or buy their affection, including blowing $2,000 on an abortive day of something called helicopter skiing – turns out to be only the first of a handful of bad decisions on his part.
During lunch one day on the outdoor terrace of a chalet-style restaurant, a controlled avalanche is set off by the resort’s snow management staff, leading to a impulsive choice by Pete that he will instantly regret, and that will slowly, over the course of the film, start to eat away at the veneer of harmony and civility that the world sees when they look at the Stantons, revealing the weaknesses beneath.
“Downhill” replicates many of the touches that made “Force Majeure” so powerful, alternating between long, static images of chilly snowscapes with more intimate scenes of heated psychodrama, and ratcheting up that tension with occasional, gunshot-like explosions in the distance that accompany the release of pressure on the slopes by avalanche management equipment. If there’s one thing that fans of the first film will miss, it’s the cavernous architecture of the original film’s hotel interior, which served to further isolate and emphasize the smallness of the central characters.
In their roles, Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus resist a natural temptation to mug for the camera, wisely choosing restraint over release. Their characters aren’t quite as poignant as the couple in “Force Majeure,” but these two comedians give the drama a go, ultimately finding an equilibrium between jokes – and frankly, there aren’t many of them – and the film’s sometimes unsettling emphasis on the more hard-to-swallow comedy of awkwardness.
“Downhill” is, at heart, a story about two wildly different interpretations of the same event: one from the stereotypically female perspective of a nurturing mama bear; and the other from the somewhat more caricatured point of view of the fragile, egotistic male, nicely embodied by the fleshy, feckless Ferrell. For fans of the actor’s serious roles (“Everything Must Go” being a prime example), it’s a treat.
Just don’t expect “Anchorman’s” Ron Burgundy.
At times, the screenplay (co-written by Jesse Armstrong and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) is overly obvious, hammering home the theme of marital discord. Amid all the squabbling, there are references to tackling the “Beast” – the nickname for the resort’s hardest slope. And Billie makes a crack at one point about going to Switzerland, which comes across, in context, as a reference to seeking neutral ground. Even the film’s title, “Downhill,” makes literal the state of something in decline.
In one painfully uncomfortable scene, Billie trots out the Stantons’ two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) so that the kids can corroborate, in front of the couple’s guests (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao), Billie’s version of events. She sends the boys to their hotel room to watch TV with the line: “Thanks, guys. You can go back to your funny movie.”
For us, there is no such option. “Downhill” has a few yuks, but for the most part, it cuts the comedy, substituting that icky feeling that comes from being trapped on a train, plane or bus, trying not to eavesdrop on the couple in the next row. They aren’t exactly arguing, but rather stewing in simmering silence.
Rating: R for strong language and some sexual material
Running time: 86 minutes