What is the artistic goal of remaking a foreign film less than 10 years after that original film’s initial release? This is a question that I pondered leading up to the Sundance world premiere screening of Downhill, the latest from the writer-director duo of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who co-wrote the award-winning screenplay for The Descendants and also made a personal favorite of mine, The Way Way Back) and a remake of the Swedish dark comedy, Force Majeure (2014).
Once the credits began to roll, I came to the realization that Faxon and Rash perhaps didn’t know the answer to that question, either. Even with the wealth of comedic talent involved in the production, Downhill struggles to land most of its awkward situational laughs. And even at a light 86 minutes, the film feels bereft of a story that can sustain feature length. There just isn’t much there, and what is there rarely works.
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus star as Pete and Billie, a husband and wife who have brought their two kids to the Swiss Alps for a ski trip. Having recently suffered a loss, Pete is trying to enjoy the scenery and activities with his family, but his mind clearly seems to be elsewhere.
While having lunch on a restaurant patio, one of the controlled explosions on the mountains sends a ton of snow hurtling right toward the family. Billie holds her two sons close, fearful of the impending danger and the safety of her children. And Pete … runs off. Once the snow clears, Pete returns to the table like nothing happened. This uncharacteristically selfish act by Pete leads Billie to reconsider the relationship she has with her husband, while Pete comes to terms with his own transgressions and how much his family means to him.
Downhill‘s darkly comedic setup has so much potential to be followed by a story that delves into marital and parental issues with painful honesty and humor. Unfortunately, the script by Faxon, Rash, and co-writer Jesse Armstrong skimps on these themes, in favor of a series of awkward confrontations and empty drama that are as dull as a butter knife.
Which is truly unfortunate, considering they have two A-list comedic leads to bring this script to life. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus do their best to make Downhill‘s dialogue work. And every now and then, their delivery will hit the right tone for the line to work. A tense argument while visiting a couple of Pete’s friends (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao) just about finds the balance of awkward and genuinely funny conversation. The rest of the film never really matches that.
There’s also wildly broad, slapstick-y comedy in Downhill that feels more at home in a bad mainstream comedy, which I don’t imagine was the intended vibe here. Miranda Otto pops up now and then as one of the hotel staff, and her over-the-top accent and antics take her scenes outside the reality of the central story. And, in general, it’s pretty difficult to swing from the mature dramatic implications of why a husband would abandon his wife and kids to a scene of an aroused Billie falling out of a public bathroom stall while performing a private act.
The unfocused tone and limp humor gives off the impression that the filmmakers didn’t quite know how to successfully make this American remake their own. And when the drama is as thin and underdeveloped as it is here, Downhill becomes a snowball effect of disengagement. And it’s a bummer that the film ends on such an admittedly clever note, because it opens our eyes to what could have been a much sharper comedy.
Downhill is rated R, and it releases into theaters this Valentine’s Day weekend.
Images courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.