Poor Downhill. If ever there was an example of the dangers of remaking a nearly perfect foreign-language film into English, it is the case of Downhill. Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is a pitch-black comedy that is almost pure drama, about a family that crumbles when faced with a staggering act of cowardice. It’s a masterful film—it made my Top 10 for 2014— one that, like Parasite, is both so good and so universal that it is only natural someone would think to remake it for English-speaking audiences that refuse to read subtitles at the movies. And to be fair to Downhill, it is not a disastrous film. It is, on its own, pretty okay. The problem for Downhill is entirely Force Majeure—that it exists, that it is better, sharper, darker, funnier in every way. If you haven’t seen Force Majeure, Downhill will probably work out for you. If you have seen Force Majeure, don’t even bother, you will just spend all your time wondering why anyone remade Force Majeure.
Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus play the central couple, Pete and Billie, who are on a ski vacation in the Alps with their weiner kids. (Don’t ask me about these children, I remember nothing about them, they are not memorable.) One day, while dining on an outdoor terrace, a man-made avalanche appears to overshoot its mark and close in on the terrace. Pete grabs his phone and flees while Billie huddles with her children, unable to escape. It turns, the avalanche went exactly as planned and the terrace received only a dusting of snow, but the damage has been done—Pete’s family saw him abandon them in a crisis. This is the exact same setup as Force Majeure, but from here the two films diverge.
Force Majeure is about a marriage, but it is also about the pressure society puts on a marriage. Downhill is basically an American divorce-ish comedy/drama. It is entirely about Billie and Pete, and it strips out the societal subtext and shading of Force, leaving just an embittered couple looking for any excuse to fight and being handed the mother of all arguments to satisfy their emotional bloodlust. Ferrell is okay in dramatic context, and here he repeats his wounded man-baby routine from films like Old School and Step Brothers, but without anything resembling charm. It’s deliberate—we’re not supposed to like Pete. JLD gives a fairly great performance as Billie, taking Downhill over and making it her own. JLD is doing the best with what she’s got, and she does well with it, it’s just that this whole experiment exists in the shadow of Force.
Downhill comes from the filmmaking duo of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (they direct and co-wrote the script), and they seem conscious of the giant shoes they’re filling, which is why Downhill skews into divorce comedy like it does. When they can do inappropriate humor, Downhill picks up some momentum. One such case is Charlotte (Miranda Otto), the unapologetically horny chalet concierge who openly encourages Billie to seek her own pleasure after clocking Pete as a general disappointment. Every time Charlotte appears, Downhill picks up a unique rhythm and starts to feel like it could be its own thing, and not just a pale imitation.
But it is very much a pale imitation. As its own thing it’s passable, perhaps even enjoyable if you’re in the mood for a dark comedy about miserable people being miserable. Having seen Force Majeure, though, there is no way this will pass muster. If you’re a JLD superfan, see it for her performance, but there’s really no other reason to see Downhill. Just wait for the film to hit digital in a few months for someone to make a supercut of Miranda Otto’s scenes and then watch that on YouTube. I like Jim Rash and Nat Faxon and look forward to their next project (which stars Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, and Octavia Spencer—promising), but Downhill feels like a waste of their abilities. They’re beholden to someone else’s vision and story, and they’re a little too unique as storytellers for that to ever really work. For a better example of their work, watch The Way Way Back, and for a better example of Downhill, you can watch Force Majeure on Hulu.