Ruben Östlund’s 2014 surgical dissection of the male ego, ‘Force Majeure’, gets a broader, uneven, Americanised revision in ‘Downhill’. Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who also produces) and Will Ferrell, the movie acts half as a sociological experiment – testing a couple’s marriage by forcing them to confront their own shortcomings – and half as a squirmworthy comedy in which uncomfortable conversations happen in public, humiliating ways. The film’s engine is a moment during a skiing holiday in which Pete (Ferrell) flees from a controlled avalanche, leaving his wife Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and their two young sons fearing for their lives. When the snow has settled, they’re left with different interpretations of what happened. Fault lines form as the family tries – and fails – to shake the incident off.
Where ‘Force Majeure’ carefully slaloms between subtle comedy and darker dramatic moments, this version (co-written by directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash) undercuts the slow-build tension by having its characters repeatedly spell out their feelings. This works once, in an extended scene with friends of Pete’s played by Zach Woods and Zoë Chao. The conversation begins with polite chitchat between the couples about their European vacations only to slowly devolve into Pete and Billie yelling and crying in front of their gobsmacked guests. This excruciating 11-minute confrontation is hands-down the film’s best scene. Elsewhere, though, the conflicts in ‘Downhill’ lack the necessary messiness. Pete’s apologies are too simple; Billie’s suggestions to fix their issues are too trite. Crucially, there’s little sense that this squabble could become an irreconcilable relationship-threatening difference.
Rash and Faxon lace the story with sexual humour, including an extended sequence with an attractive ski instructor that allows Louis-Dreyfus some of her funniest moments. However, in adding silly characters like Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a promiscuous hotel worker, the grounded reality needed to give the couple’s actions real weight goes missing. When ‘Downhill’ works, it’s because the dynamic between Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell feels recognisably fraught. More often than not, though, this remake gets stuck in the snow.