Downhill Smooths the Edges of its Swedish Predecessor
It’s become a bit of a trend in recent years--a well-received non-English-language movie gets an American remake with big stars before being unceremoniously dumped in the first quarter release window to fight for attention among holiday blockbusters and awards hopefuls. Often, as with The Upside (a 2017 U.S. remake of the 2011 French hit The Intouchables), the new version is a critical disappointment, and sometimes, like Miss Bala (2019’s remake of the 2011 Mexican film of the same name), it’s a commercial failure as well. But Hollywood soldiers on, undeterred, and 2020 brings us Downhill, a new, English-language version of 2014’s acclaimed Swedish satirical dramedy Force Majeure. The movie begins exactly the same way as its predecessor: a family of four tourists arrives at a European ski resort and is cajoled into a group photo on the slopes by an overeager resort employee. Right from the start, it’s clear that there’s some sort of disconnect between husband and wife Peter (Will Ferrell) and Billie Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). They can’t get on the same page for the photo, and Billie is increasingly frustrated with Peter’s constant texting with a coworker. Their dysfunction comes to a head during a cliffside lunch at the ski resort when a controlled avalanche comes careening down the mountain towards the lunch pavilion. Although it initially appears harmless, as the wall of snow and ice comes barreling towards the Stantons and other tourists, a panic forms. But while Billie shields her sons from seemingly impending doom, Peter grabs his phone and flees, exposing a rift between himself and Billie that they spend the rest of the film struggling to navigate. Downhill leans heavily on the well-established personas of its central duo, and approaches both its comedic and dramatic elements with broader strokes than its Swedish counterpart. Where Force Majeure was concerned with investigating and deconstructing modern gender roles and marital expectations, Downhill is a more prosaic affair, focused more closely on the specific relationship between Billie and Peter. Although at times it hints at deeper ideas—Americans’ tendency toward litigiousness and sexual squeamishness relative to Europeans—it never gives them more than a fleeting glance, wasting time instead on jabs about social media and technology that already feel dated. Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back, The Descendants) add a few new elements to their version of this story, but they never really click into place. An added subplot about the death of Peter’s father, used only as a temporary justification for his cowardice, feels superfluous; likewise, the addition of an attractive Italian ski instructor as a source of temptation for Billie falls flat. Miranda Otto’s sexually forward resort hostess, on the other hand, is a comic treasure, and her repartee with Louis-Dreyfus is endlessly entertaining. In fact, I would’ve gladly followed her into her own separate movie, and that illustrates the main problem with Downhill: the main story is never quite as compelling as it should be. Downhill is all the more disappointing because it feels like a missed opportunity; pairing Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus should be a slam dunk on paper. At their best, both Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell excel at undergirding comedic moments with genuine pathos, and they make the most of their somewhat limited opportunities here, but I couldn’t help but wish that they were in a movie that made better use of their considerable talents. Until then, hopefully this movie does for other viewers what it did for me: encourage them to seek out Force Majeure.