by George Wolf
If you’re a pair of American filmmakers out to remake an exceptional foreign film from the last decade, you gotta pick a side.
Are you gonna put some bankable U.S. stars up front and just add your name to someone else’s originality, or do you have a vision that can make the story your own?
To their credit, co-writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash choose the latter path for Downhill, their take on Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 stunner, Force Majeure (Turist). Faxon and Rash won an Oscar for their The Descendants screenplay – so the boys can write – but this makeover ultimately lands as a pleasant exercise stripped of the insightful bite.
The catalyst remains the same: a traumatic event changes the way a couple sees each other. Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are on a lavish ski vacation in Austria with their two sons. Eating lunch on the resort’s outdoor porch, the family is terrified when an avalanche appears to be heading right for them.
Bille clutches her children in fear, while Pete grabs his phone and runs.
Turns out it was a planned snow release and everyone’s fine, but the Stanton marriage has been shaken to its core, no matter how hard Pete tries to revise history with another couple (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao).
Faxon and Rash do Americanize the story well, as Billie first looks to blame the resort (“I’m an attorney!”), and Pete, continually wallowing in the loss of his father eight months prior, becomes a personification of rationalized selfishness.
But while Ostlund used the secondary couple as a device to invite us into a near clinical deconstruction of societal assumptions, Faxon and Rash introduce a new “B” story involving an aggressive resort concierge (Amanda Otto) who lives on the wild side. It’s an uneven trade of insight for zany, and can’t move the film from an uneven headspace that’s too serious for comedy but too light for drama.
Downhill does give us the chance to see Will and Julia go head to head, and that is no small treat. Ferrell is a natural as the big awkward goof trying to come to terms with himself, but make no mistake, Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the reason to see this movie.
Billie is confused, hurt and angry, and Louis-Dreyfus sells it all with total authenticity, often with little to no dialog. She finds real depth in terrain that’s often shallow (such as Billie’s flirtations with a younger ski instructor), ultimately offering more proof that, in case you’ve missed the last few decades, JLD is a flat-out treasure.
And much like Billy Ray’s updated Secret in Their Eyes five years ago, Downhill has a humdinger of an ending to deal with. In the original film, Ostlund gave us an organic twist that managed to re-frame all that came before. Faxon and Rash’s take feels a bit like hitting the Ohio slopes after a trip to Vermont.
There are similarities, but the thrill is gone.
If you’ve haven’t seen Force Majeure, Downhill is a perfectly acceptable vehicle for two well-loved stars. If you have, well, see it again.