Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete Staunton (Will Ferrell) take a vacation with their two sons to an Austrian ski resort. When an avalanche threatens to kill them over lunch, Pete runs – leaving his wife and children behind, and opening up an emotional rift in their relationship.
Downhill, the first feature from Disney’s newly acquired Searchlight Pictures, is a comedy-drama co-written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. It remakes Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s hugely successful 2014 film Force Majeure. I have not seen Östlund’s film – although I have heard great things – but certainly I have never had any objection to foreign remakes from being made. There are plenty of reasons to remake a film in another language, and I firmly believe each one should be considered on its own merits. In the case of Downhill Faxon and Rash have made a valiant stab at directing a sharp combination of dark comedy and emotional drama, but fail to tie their project together. Many individual scenes work, but overall Downhill simply does not hold together. It is that most frustrating kind of film: you can see how it could have creatively succeeded, but find yourself stuck with the version that was actually made instead.
Östlund’s original premise is solid gold: sitting out at lunch, the Stauntons watch a controlled avalanche rush down a nearby mountainside. It rolls closer and closer until the restaurant is clearly going to be hit by it. Pete instinctively flees – although he does pause to take his mobile telephone with him – while Billie and her sons cower at their table. It is a false alarm: while doused liberally with snow, everyone seated at the restaurant is fine. Pete sheepishly returns, but everyone knows what he did, and who he abandoned. It is wonderful premise on which to base the disintegration of a marriage, and playing that collapse out in both dramatic and comedic terms is a bold and wonderful idea. While that combination allegedly works brilliantly in Östlund’s film, it fails to work here.
The humour and the drama make awkward bedfellows, mainly because here the humour fails to engage. It is too often misplaced or inappropriate: a problem personified by Miranda Otto’s strange turn as a sex-obsessed Austrian holidaymaker who keeps encountering the Stauntons. In a more conventional comedy, such a character would grate. In a blended genre work like this, it actively annoys. It diverts from the bolder comedy moments and the interpersonal crises, and wastes time better spent on other characters. The film does manage to executive a level of wonderfully awkward ‘not sure if we can laugh’ moments, but when they keep getting diverted by the sillier elements they lose their chance to impact upon the audience.
Will Ferrell feels out of his depth here. He is demonstrably a talented comic actor – albeit one suited to a particular taste – but struggles to be fully convincing in the serious sections of the film. He is not very well supported by the script, which should be feeding him more nuance on Pete’s motivations, but even on his own merits he does not properly supply what the narrative asks of him. Much more impressive is Julia Louis Dreyfus, who remains one of the USA’s most talented and underrated actors: she is showered with awards, for sure, but the acknowledgement is always for her comic skills and never for her ability to act. Now that her current television commitments have ended with Veep, I am keen to see her work in cinema a lot more (particularly in drama). The sad part is that due to Downhill coming across as a misfire, audiences will not see and appreciate her performance here.
Downhill is certainly watchable, but it is also deeply frustrating. It is the most annoying kind of a film to watch: not simply bad, and therefore easily dismissed, but messy and mediocre. You can see the good film that it could have been, annoyingly close and maddeningly out of reach.