Transposing Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure through an American lens, Downhill casts Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as parents on a skiing vacation that may sink their marriage. When a mountain avalanche sends Ferrell’s Pete fleeing with his phone instead of protecting his wife and two sons, cracks in the marriage’s foundation are blown wide open, jeopardizing their future. But with such a lifeless adaptation as this, we’re instead left wondering if it might be for the best.
As Billie, Louis-Dreyfus unsurprisingly is the film’s mightiest asset, with a keener sense of how to achieve the film’s delicate tonal balance. Her film-salvaging performance is quite the feat, considering how tipped the film’s scales are regarding who it sympathizes with between Pete and Billie. If not outright woman-hating, Downhill tries to portray her as unmoving and somewhat irrational in the face of Pete’s tepid self-composure. It’s no surprise that the actress delivers the film’s most successful comedic moments, but her ability to convey Billie’s fumbling towards realization (particularly in a film at odds with the character) impresses. She simply deserves a better film around her.
Ferrell is somewhat less successful, rendered in the beiger facets of his screen persona as Pete struggles to grasp and mend his failings. Never fully at ease in similar previous roles that fall somewhere between the absurd and the emotional, Farrell is both miscast and ill-matched to Louis-Dreyfus. Rather than transcending the film’s problems, he feels emblematic of them.
Writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash reduce the original’s intensity and cruelly patient observation into something much more passive and facile regarding the sustainability of marriage. What Downhill is missing is a sense of momentum, of mounting internal pressures that make its drama relatable and hilarious when they reach their inevitable explosions. The result is a remake that doesn’t trust the audience to make their own conclusions or allow them to see something uncomfortable in themselves. Instead of a universal look at human nature at odds with family institutions, we’re dealt a film about insufferable marrieds who don’t realize how good they have it.
Then there is an undercurrent of mean-spirited caricature shading Downhill’s periphery, particularly in its supporting cast. Both a young globe-trotting couple (played by Zach Woods and Zoe Chao) and a concierge-by-way-of-Swedish-Chef caricature played by Miranda Otto sting with unnecessary judgment, as if Faxon and Rash mistake a holier than thou judgment for discerning social critique. It all rings of a lack of intention or clear point of view.
Downhill lacks meaningful bite, and a sense of its environment as metaphor. Despite the film’s sub-90 minute running time (or perhaps because of it), the film is a bit of a blunt object with an unclear target, oscillating aimlessly between Pete’s vague grief and Billie’s collapsed sense of security. Even more imprecise in its calibration between drama and comedy than their first feature The Way Way Back, Faxon and Rash assemble Downhill with a fatal lack of depth. What they observe in this marriage-on-the-rocks trifle is all too reliant on cliche to be impactful, making it too easy to write off Billie and Pete’s flounderings as their own, rather than ours.