Review by Jonathan Hickman
One subtle, masterful scene made 2014’s “Force Majeure” remarkable. But once you’ve seen it and understand the central conflict, it loses its impact. That’s probably why this English-language remake of the Swedish hit film was doomed from the start.
In “Downhill,” Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell play a middle-aged couple who take their two sons on a ski vacation in the Alps. From the beginning, something is missing between them. Pete (Ferrell) is glued to his smartphone, texting with a work colleague, who luckily enough, is also vacationing nearby with his young girlfriend. Pete’s takes a keen interest in the younger couple’s social media posts and their no plans, and no rules hashtags.
Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) is all-mom, planning, and carefully managing the daily schedule. Her intensity is off-putting, but Pete dutifully goes along. And even though he’s going through the motions of Dad, Pete’s checked out on a deeper level.
Adjusting to their resort presents problems. They’ve mistakenly checked into an adults-only hotel. Things get even more uncomfortable when a sexy hotel hostess named Charlotte (Miranda Otto) suggests that they should let their hair down and go naked in the saunas. Charlotte’s inappropriateness makes Billie uncomfortable but intrigues Pete. Or are they both a little interested in taking a walk on the wild side?
After spending some time on the slopes, the family settles in, but then something unexpected happens. To the experienced film buff, what happens is expected. And the happening is played out almost shot-for-shot with its 2014 predecessor. The moment is still masterful, but instead of being surprised and interested in what happens next to this conflicted couple, I found myself wandering.
Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell make a solid, credible couple. They reveal that their boys were late additions to their family, which explains their age. And Louis-Dreyfus breaks out of her zany “Veep” mode to adopt a less self-centered personality. As a mom, she’s determined to be a good example. However, this makes her a stick in the mud.
On the other hand, despite playing Pete in a low key, Ferrell, once again, is a clueless, lovable lug. In one scene, I thought the bar he was partying in was going to break out in a “Frank the Tank” chant from the actor’s “Old School” days. Thankfully, Ferrell doesn’t go streaking in this film. But maybe if he had, “Downhill” would have been more fun.
There is a restrained quality to the entire production that weighs it down. Perhaps, the problems these two couples experience are too reminiscent of a bad family vacation–not a darkly funny vacation, just a bad one.
There’s a reason why I’ve not encouraged my wife to sit down with me and watch Netflix’s Oscar-nominated “Marriage Story.” Of course, I watched the movie surrounded by fellow critics in a darkened movie theater. It’s not a film that I want to revisit, certainly not in the comforts of my living room. Having been divorced once, I can attest to that film’s accuracy. And “Downhill” is very much in the same category, if also, not nearly as good. Watching Billie and Pete descend into angry chaos is painful, and any laughs are of the cynical variety. It’s just not entertaining.
Besides Miranda Otto as an over-sexed hotel employee, highlights include “Game of Thrones” star Kristofer Hivju as a ski safety supervisor. Hivju was a big part of “Force Majeure,” but sadly, he’s only got one scene in this remake. The movie needed more Hivju.
Like “Force Majeure,” “Downhill” is more drama than comedy. And by relying on that one revelatory moment, “Force Majeure’s” slow and tedious narrative portions could be overlooked. But I don’t remember it being as frustrating as “Downhill.” Maybe the problem is the unusual pairing of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell, whose comedic sensibilities as actors differ substantially.
A “Seinfeld” veteran, whose HBO series “Veep” was addictive, marvelous viewing, Louis-Dreyfus is an actress that relies on fast-talking snark. By contrast, Ferrell often counts on his affable everyman qualities combined with ample helpings of bumbling physical comedy. “Downhill” throws both of these excellent comic performers’ essential abilities away, forcing them to both play straight-men. With no one to deliver the punchline, even the bitting one, any humor turns sour and jokes leaden.
Ultimately, “Downhill’s” failure is in not seeing beyond the film that inspired it. There’s just nothing that distinguishes this remake from the original to justify its existence.
A RottenTomatoes.com Tomatometer-approved critic, Jonathan W. Hickman is also an entertainment lawyer, college professor, novelist, and filmmaker. He’s a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle, The Southeastern Film Critics Association, and the Georgia Film Critics Association. For more information about Jonathan visit: FilmProductionLaw.com or DailyFIlmFix.com