Both Downhill’s schmaltzy trailer and its tepid 44% score on the Tomatometer have no doubt clipped the movie’s wings before it had a chance to reach general audiences. The underwhelming critical response following its Sundance premiere last month more or less ensured that Fox Searchlight — sorry, I mean Searchlight Pictures — wouldn’t waste any effort on marketing despite a pair of recognizable leads in Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Writers-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash also took seven years to follow up their modest indie hit The Way, Way Back, the sort of charming dramedy the studio used to crank out with rapid speed back in the mid-2000s before A24 eclipsed the arthouse scene.
Still, I would stand to wager that much of the indifferent shrugs stem from critics (myself included) who fell in love with the Swedish film Force Majeure back in 2014, of which Downhill is an American remake. As you might expect, this English-language adaptation is inferior in enough ways as to deem it unnecessary: Faxon and Rash sand off the bleaker edges that gave the original’s comedy a potent sting. The concealed dread that propelled Force Majeure is replaced here by a mawkish brand of cringe comedy that incites mild chuckles over delectable discomfort. It’s what every fan fears when a studio announces a stateside remake of a crossover international hit — something watered down and made accessible for audiences who don’t care enough about cinema to watch a movie with subtitles.
And yet while there’s no denying all those things are true, and Downhill does indeed contribute to a larger problem, it’s a good enough time. In fact, those unaware of Force Majeure’s existence may even find themselves downright enjoying it. The broad comedic beats are amusing enough, although you’ll forget them almost immediately. The real heavy lifting is done by Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, both of whom are wonderfully committed playing a married couple in crisis. Perhaps even more than the material deserves. Louis-Dreyfus especially brings it as Billie, whose entire perception of her husband, Pete (Ferrell), is upended when, during a family ski trip in the Alps, he displays blatant cowardice in the face of a potential crisis (which I won’t spoil here). That brief, intense moment turns out to be a mere false alarm, but the damage has been done; Pete’s small moment of selfishness reveals a devastating truth about his commitment (or lack thereof) to his wife and two sons.
Billie isn’t the only one altered by the incident, as Pete himself has to come to terms with whether or not his family are the endgame he always wanted. Following these revelations, both characters embark on their own seriocomic journeys of self-discovery. Billie’s journey sadly amounts to little more than a sequence of adulterous temptation. However, Pete’s arc does at least touch on preconceived notions of masculinity and the societal pressures that come with fatherhood.
After six-plus years of mainly mediocre big-studio comedies, it’s a welcome change to see Ferrell stretching his hapless persona into melancholy territory. His performance gives even the most uninspired bits an added layer of depth. A scene in which a flirtatious young woman mistakes Pete for a hunky ski bro culminates in a rather tired gag, but Ferrell plays his cautious excitement and subsequent disappointment with an understated quietness that makes the scene work.
Louis-Dreyfus plays the frustrated matriarch like a pro. This isn’t the verbose (although she’s clearly intelligent) neurotic she perfected in shows like Seinfeld and VEEP. She brings an underlying anger to Billie that feels earned given her domestic predicament. Pete is not the man she thought she signed up for with this marriage, and that resentment boils over in the film’s best scene, where Billie finally voices her concerns about Pete’s actions in the midst of an uncomfortable double date. Her monologue is a barn-burner, and all credit should be given to the tearful, righteous indignation of her delivery as opposed to any dialogue from the screenplay. It’s one of the rare instances when Downhill fully comes into its own.
Force Majeure asked a novel question: What happens when your family realizes their father isn’t as strong as they need him to be? That horrifying notion loomed over every darkly comedic scene of marital strife in that film. Downhill merely asks: What will it take for Pete to realize that he really does love his family? Not exactly a question you’ll be wrestling with six hours later let alone six years.