If you’re going to have the hubris to remake a good movie, you’d better be prepared to bring some exciting new ideas or fresh approaches to the material. The appropriately titled “Downhill” does neither.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are superb performers (I’ve been a fan since they were Groundlings) turned talented screenwriters (“The Descendants”) and directors (“The Way Way Back”), but their pedestrian remake of the squirmily hilarious 2014 comedy “Force Majeure” seems like a major miscalculation.
Had they made a the-same-but-in-English do-over, it would be unremarkable but forgivable. Instead (with co-writer Jesse Armstrong, “Succession”), they have actively dumbed down the Swedish restraint of Ruben Ostlund’s original, spelling out and underlining every bit of characterization and motivation in a manner that suggests they don’t trust the audience’s intelligence.
Americans Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their children are on a ski vacation in the Alps when one of the resort’s controlled avalanches seemingly goes out of control, blanketing their deck with a blinding amount of snow; Billie stays with the terrified kids while Pete’s instinct is to grab his cellphone and run. In the aftermath, Pete tries to pretend that nothing has happened — even suddenly becoming overprotective of his children’s safety — while Billie waits for him to acknowledge how he responded during what appeared to be a life-or-death situation.
Pete’s initial unwillingness to cop to his actions, and Billie’s increasing frustration with him (in addition to the way the incident underscores other issues in their marriage), leads to uncomfortably comic altercations, particularly one that will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever been an annoyed parent or recalcitrant child.
Even with its shortcomings, “Downhill” does a lot right, from the casting of its leads — Louis-Dreyfus is the queen of coiled irritation and Ferrell is her equal when it comes to beta-male bluster — to the gloss and grandeur of the luxury Alpine settings. (Admittedly, “Force Majeure” also had a great sense of place, so at its best, this new film is merely its predecessor’s equal.)
Anyone looking to illustrate the difference between European art-house filmmaking and Hollywood studio product (“Downhill” is the first film to go out with the Fox-less “Searchlight Pictures” logo) could point to the many times “Downhill” comes out and says what “Force Majeure” only has to imply. The new film borrows the iconic shot of the family brushing their teeth together in the big bathroom mirror, but in “Downhill,” we know that Billie is annoyed with Pete because she crosses over and uses the other sink that faces the other side of the mirror.
That’s just one example of the film not trusting us to pick up on cues, on glances, on awkward silences. The blow-ups between Pete and Billie are tense and funny, yes — and co-stars Miranda Otto, Zach Woods and Zoë Chao get their own moments to shine — but Rash and Faxon lack the confidence to let the audience wriggle on the hook of unease by delaying the couple’s inevitable confrontations. And on top of that, there’s a third-act resolution that goes overboard in spelling out how everyone feels and how they’ll proceed from here.
“Downhill” is a movie designed for people who can’t be bothered to jump what Bong Joon Ho recently called the “one-inch hurdle” of subtitles in a very accessible film. (As of this writing, “Force Majeure” is available for rent on Amazon and streaming for subscribers of Hulu and Kanopy.) Anyone who sees this new movie without having watched the original will certainly enjoy the lead performances, but they’ll be getting the frozen-watered-down version of the story.