Downhill, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back) is a breezy 80-minute comedy starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s about an American family on a crazy ski vacation to the alps! With only minor alterations, it might have been a reboot to the National Lampoon Vacation franchise. It opens Friday in limited release.
Both leads, plus Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods in a supporting role, are skilled comedic performers who revel in encounters of sublime awkwardness and humor. But the great disappointment of the film is what it has done to a stunning, nervy original.
Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure was among the best films of 2014, a Hitchcockian thrill ride that didn’t play any of its dramatic moments for laughs and yet was wickedly funny throughout. It deployed a keening choral and orchestral score to maximize tension and, in capturing the unique settings and sounds of a European ski resort, presented a wholly original psychodramatic diorama. Scene breaks were often punctuated by the detonations of controlled explosions — creating the avalanches that played a key narrative and thematic role — and separated by long takes of the resort itself: empty ski lifts, dripping snow boots, etc. A silent, swarthy janitor observed intimate moments while smoking a cigarette. It was a cinematic experience! Downhill, on the other hand, just kind of wants to be a dark comedy, but can’t even get there.
Take the opening scene. In Force Majeure, a mother and father and their two young children are invited to pose for pictures by a resort staff photographer. The family obediently poses and re-poses as the cameraman, off screen, shouts “Good one!” and continually asks his subjects to adjust their positions in broken English. It’s a moment of exquisite discomfort and annoyance. Downhill begins exactly the same way, but plays the scene for slapstick laughs as Pete (Ferrell) and Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) keep raising their ski poles and banging into their two sons.
Downhill’s plot follows the same contours as its source material: On the second day of ski week, the family is eating lunch on a patio overlooking a glorious mountain view. One of the controlled avalanches begins tumbling down a nearby slope. Everyone oohs and aahs until the snow gathers force and velocity as it heads directly for them. In a split-second decision, Pete grabs his phone and dashes for the exit, forsaking his family.
Everyone is rattled, but perfectly safe, in the aftermath. The avalanche stopped just short of the restaurant. But Pete’s decision naturally has reverberations through the rest of the week. Tension in the family mounts as they all begin to question what sort of man their father is. Billie wants to confront Pete about it, but Pete keeps avoiding the issue, ultimately declaring that his “perception” of events is different than Billie’s. His work friend Zach (Woods) and his new girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao), traveling nearby, pop in and witness the strife unfold. (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju, who played the friend role in Force Majeure, has a cameo in Downhill in a brief new subplot about resort safety.)
Downhill succeeds when it veers substantively, not tonally, from its source. In the original, the main couple was in their late 30s or early 40s. The father’s pivotal decision made him come to terms with the fact that he was just a shitty guy. In Downhill, Pete and Billie are in their 50s. They had kids late, via artificial means, and Pete’s pivotal decision is interpreted as a referendum on that decision. He’s constantly on his phone and clearly has typical macho mid-life anxiety about aging, about no longer being sexually desirable and physically capable. He’s annoyed about having to wear a helmet, for example, doubly so when Billie puts stickers on it so that they can identify each other on the slopes. Billie, too, is confronted with a decision in the course of a private ski lesson with an Italian heartthrob.
But so many of the scenes are cut and pasted word for the word, beat for beat, from Force Majeure, which is why it’s so remarkable that the edge has been so thoroughly blunted. The movie is fine. There are some really funny moments. But Ostlund’s film is the one to watch and savor. It’s streaming on Hulu.