‘Downhill’ Movie Review: Stirring Performances By Julia Louis-Dreyfus & Will Ferrell Elevate By-The-Numbers Remake
Though he had been directing for over 20 years beforehand, Ruben Östlund‘s 2014 comedy-drama Force Majeure turned him into the “it” director almost overnight — his next feature, The Square, won the top prize at Cannes in 2017. Force Majeure is a modern masterclass in subtlety and restraint, interweaving its moments of humor and tragedy in ways that make the two completely inextricable.
Enter Downhill, an American remake of Force Majeure that does just about everything with its source material you might expect an American remake to do. Östlund’s feature clocks in at one minute shy of two hours, whereas the credits for Downhill roll after just over eighty minutes. Unsurprisingly, much of the original’s complexity and pain has been cut out, with Downhill instead using its brief runtime to capitalize on the humor.
And it’s not hard to see why — the combined comedic powers of stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus are virtually unparalleled in Hollywood today. The premise of the film is also one ripe with possibility for humor: Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus star as Pete and Billie, a strained couple escaping to the Austrian Alps with their two sons for some skiing and relaxation. As the family eats outside one day, an oncoming avalanche causes Billie to hunker down with her sons as Pete grabs his phone as runs away. Once the snow clears, however, the avalanche turns out to be nothing at all, and Billie is forced to reckon with a side of her husband she didn’t think existed.
Ferrell sells his role well as a phone-addicted patriarch who is seriously out his element when it comes to protecting his family, but it’s Louis-Dreyfus who really shines here. Pete’s moment of cowardice and subsequent denial causes Billie to question the very foundation of her marriage, and Louis-Dreyfus’s navigation of this frustration and uncertainty is truly captivating.
The rest of the cast, however, leaves more than a little to be desired. Zach Woods plays one of Pete’s coworkers who, along with his girlfriend Rosie (played by Zoë Chao), joins Pete and Billie for part of their vacation. The couple serves as little more than a foil off of which Pete and Billie can play their frustrations, and their inclusion is really just an opportunity to milk confessions out of the two stars. Miranda Otto also joins as a lazily-constructed hotel manager whose sexual freedom both discomforts and fascinates Billie as she is forced to look at her husband in a new light. While some of Otto’s moments are genuinely hilarious, the camp-forward accent leaves much to be desired.
The vast majority of Downhill is equal parts funny and insightful, but the film abandons both of these qualities as it winds to a close. Whereas the Swedish original opted to ask interesting questions, Downhill asks little and instead offers uninteresting answers — culminating in a final scene that feels more like the conclusion to an off-color Saturday Night Live sketch than it does the ending to a proper film. While Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus bring the best of their comedic and dramatic chops to it, Downhill ultimately asks far too little of them to be a truly interesting film. What might be even worse, though, is how little it asks of the audience.