When the critically praised 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure (directed by Ruben Östlund) debuted, it was celebrated as a critical look at the traditional family dynamic, male bravado, and the roles that individuals are forced to play in the eyes of strangers. It’s about a Swedish family vacationing at a ski resort in the Swiss Alps whose lives are forever changed when they believe they’re directly in the path of a “controlled” avalanche. It’s a fascinating social experiment about a European family in a European setting. The instant that writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (Oscar winners for co-writing The Descendants, and also behind the delightful The Way Way Back) import an American family into the same location, there is something quite different at play (the filmmakers share a writing credit here with Jesse Armstrong).
This is not to say that their retitled Downhill doesn’t have its moments of insight. They are completely aware that most Europeans currently see Americans as people who act tough but are actually simpering, entitled dicks. So when Will Ferrell’s Peter grabs his phone and runs for cover during the aforementioned avalanche, leaving his wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and two sons to presumably die (they remain very much alive and utterly in shock at Pete’s cowardly behavior), there’s nothing inherently surprising about his actions. The problem is, they still have the bulk of their vacation to spend together, and they must find a way to reevaluate their lives together while getting the most out of their exotic location.
Pete helplessly looks for ways to prove his manhood, including seeming game to go down the most treacherous slopes or getting drunk with a visiting co-worker (Zach Woods), who is traveling across Europe with his new lady (Zoe Chao). Meanwhile, Billie is flirting with everything from the sexually forward hotel employee Charlotte (a ridiculously funny Miranda Otto) to a random swarthy ski instructor, just to see if she can feel a sexual charge that she likely won’t be getting from her husband any time soon. Despite the casting of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, Downhill isn’t about big, broad laughs, although it would be easy to label it something of a pitch-black relationship comedy. It doesn’t dig deep enough into this marriage in disarray to qualify it as a hard-hitting drama either. It essentially floats somewhere frustratingly in between, and we’re left wishing it would commit and excel at one or the other.
Louis-Dreyfus gives the more able performance of the two leads, embodying the frustration and resentment of having to reassess her relationship at a time when simply getting out of it isn’t an option, largely because of the children. She was clearly willing to accept Pete’s shortcomings before the avalanche, but such bold-faced betrayal is more than she’s willing to tolerate. And Pete has clearly been aware of her changing feelings toward him, and his efforts to ingratiate himself to her are sometimes downright humiliating to witness—something Farrell excels at portraying.
Without giving away the ending of Downhill, I can say that Faxon and Rash have reworked the way in which their two leads resolve their conflict. Maybe it’s only for the sake of the kids, or perhaps the idea of ending their marriage is more work, pain and suffering than they’re willing to engage in at this point in their lives. Again, the resolution has less bite than the Swedish source material, but in a weird way, just giving up and moving forward with the status quo does sound uniquely American, so maybe it’s exactly what these characters and the audience deserve. The movie lacks certain subtleties that might have made it more satisfying, but what’s here is still serviceable, amusing and worthy of some attention.
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