Producers: Anthony Bregman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Stefanie Azpiazu Directors: Nat Faxon and Jim Rash Screenplay: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Zach Woods, Zoë Chao, Miranda Otto, Giulio Berruti, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford and Kristofer Hivju Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Ruben Östlund’s cool, sharp 2014 Swedish black comedy about a family’s emotional disintegration as a result of an act of cowardice in the face of an incoming avalanche at a ski resort inspired this English-language version, which misfires on virtually all cylinders; rarely has a title more accurately described a movie’s trajectory from original to misguided reworking.
In this version, Billie and Pete Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell) arrive at a posh, modernistic Alpine resort with their sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford). Their marriage seems no better than okay, and though they all hit the slopes, none of the four seem to be enjoying themselves all that much, often taking to their rooms to watch television or play video games. The conversation between Billie and Pete seems a little strained, too.
Things change for the worse when, in a trip to the deck of the restaurant overlooking the mountains, they hear one of the distant rumbles—controlled explosions to keep the runs right—that have punctuated their stay and watch in horror as a wave of snow comes from the mountains toward them. Pete quickly takes action, but hardly of the heroic sort: he runs to safety into the restaurant, leaving his wife and kids at the table to fend for themselves.
The threat subsides, but the effect of Pete’s split-second decision hovers over the rest of the vacation: Billie’s angry not only at his apparent cowardice, but at his refusal to admit what he’d done. The division between them explodes during an evening with Pete’s work buddy Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao), whom Pete’s invited to join them despite Billie’s opposition (and then lied to her about it), and leads her to distance herself from him for the rest of their stay; only her desire to help him regain a degree of stature in their sons’ eyes prevents what looks like a marital disintegration, with her sharing an afternoon with a handsome ski instructor (Giulio Berruti) and him going on a sad, drunken adventure with Zach.
One might have expected that the makers would have taken the opportunity to transform the story into a wacky vehicle of the kind Ferrell specializes in, but such is not the case. Though it lacks the pungency of Östlund’s film, this on-and-off remake remains basically a drama with comedic undertones, one of those movie in which Ferrell tries to stretch. It certainly takes advantage of his general physical flabbiness and his ability to play befuddled, but his puzzled expression often seems to reflect the actor’s failure to fully inhabit the character rather than Pete’s effort to understand what’s happening and devise some way of dealing with it. As for Louis-Dreyfus, there’s not much humor at all to her intensity, though she shows a softer side toward the close, particularly in her scenes with the boys.
The family dynamic takes up most of the movie, but it’s egged on by episodes with other characters, not least those played by Woods and Chao, who are quite different from the equivalent couple in the original film but work fairly well. A few scenes give Miranda Otto the opportunity to grab the limelight as a distinctly liberated (and bossy) resort employee—another figure from the original but more broadly drawn here, and there’s a funny sequence in which Pete and Billie, at her insistence, confront the manager of the place (Kristofer Hivju) over the avalanche scare—another instance in which Pete proves the wuss.
Overall, though, these seem like digressions intended to camouflage the fact that as rewritten (removing, for example, the original’s closing bus sequence), this is a fairly flimsy script, with concerns about gender identities that are never coherently addressed. Even with a relatively large number of skiing footage, “Downhill” clocks in at under ninety minutes, and at that, as edited by Pamela Martin and Dave Rennie, it feels overlong and rather flaccid. It does look good, though, with cinematographer Danny Cohen obviously relishing the locations and Dave Warren’s production design.
Ultimately, though, this is a dramedy about emotional discomfort that will probably cause most viewers to feel uncomfortable themselves. And it’s one of the weirdest Valentine’s Day releases imaginable.
Incidentally, there’s a bit of history to be found in “Downhill.” It’s the first Searchlight film to be released since Disney struck “Fox” from the name. But at least they retain the old Fox fanfare at the start; it would be sad to lose that.