Writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s “Downhill” is less of a remake of the 2014 award-winning “Force Majeure” and more of an English-language interpretation.
The premise is the same; however, with older, American characters, a tightened script and a slight imbalance in the point of view, “Downhill” is the simplified version for U.S. audiences. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Enough Said”) gives the expected stellar performance while Will Ferrell’s usual comedic antics are impressively restrained. Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure” was two hours of sub-context, nuance and keeping an even keel between the husband and wife. “Downhill” doesn’t give the audience as much credit (and who can blame them); Faxon and Rash lean into comedic elements more than the original and cut supporting characters’ roles to focus more on the main couple.
Following the death of his father, Pete Stanton (Ferrell) and his wife, Billie (Dreyfus), take a family ski trip with their sons to Austria. Pete can’t stop texting his co-worker (Zach Woods), a younger, more adventurous guy traveling Europe with his girlfriend (Zoe Chao), doing drugs and living the life this married father of two misses. Billie is a great skier, she planned this trip and continues to dictate their every move. During lunch on their second day of activities, a nearby controlled blast brings an avalanche hurdling toward the family. Billie grabs the boys and hunkers down, while Pete grabs his phone and bolts from their table. Unmistakably terrified, the realization that her husband ran away from his family causes more damage than the snow. As the air clears, Pete returns to the table, downplaying both the near miss and his own actions. However, the damage was done, and the Stanton family is forever changed.
The added comedy for “Downhill” takes aim at both stereotypical American tourists and paints European service people as caricatures. Miranda Otto is quite entertaining as the obnoxious, foul-mouthed hotel concierge, but her role is a bit out of place. “Game of Thrones’” Kristofer Hivju appears in both versions, but in more of a cameo here, explaining to the Stantons that they are “not in America.” Dreyfus is given stronger moments than in the Swedish version, as the big conversation piece is written much angrier. While remaking international films isn’t something I support, if that’s what it takes for this type of conversation to be had, then so be it. “Downhill” is a film that can open couples, families, even individuals up to self-examination and useful discussion. As discussed in both versions, we think we know how we will react in stressful situations, but we can never be sure until the moment presents itself.
“Downhill” presents a clear visual example of why some people shouldn’t have children, should never marry, and why some Americans should just probably stick with Disney World rather than travel abroad. There is perverse satisfaction in watching other people endure such misery, especially when it’s of their own making. Hateful behavior and bitter family arguments are a staple in Faxon/Rash collaborations such as “The Descendants” or “The Way Way Back.” These resentful exchanges allow characters to tear down in order to have the option to rebuild or walk away. The story behind “Downhill” and “Force Majeure” is more than just differences of opinion of how the husband or wife perceived a stressful situation. In 90 minutes, it touches on topics of masculinity, failed heroism and a mother’s instincts all under the guise of painful humor. If you listened to the Feb. 7 edition of The Ted Radio Hour on how comedians use comedy to confront serious issues, the approach used here makes even more sense.
Final Thought: Faxon and Rash instinctively trim the Euro nuance so American audiences can absorb Östlund’s compelling story through painful humor.