“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Oscar Wilde’s eloquent quote sums up my reaction to Downhill; the American remake of the 2014, award-winning Swedish film, Force Majeure. The brilliant character interplay and biting dialogue of the original are lost in translation. Comedy greats Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell look wooden in their performances. They elicit a few chuckles, but fail to captivate overall. Their lack of chemistry turns Downhill into a slow, dry narrative.
Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) Staunton take their two young sons skiing in the Austrian Alps. Pete has mistakenly booked them at a resort meant for adults. Which they learn quickly after meeting the provocative concierge (Miranda Otto). Pete’s craving for adventure and excitement on the slopes is not shared by his family. The next morning at breakfast, an unexpected event, and Pete’s reaction to it, brings the tension to a crisis point.
The situation worsens with the arrival of Pete’s younger co-worker (Zach Woods) and his carefree new girlfriend (Zoë Chao). A group dinner turns ugly when Billie recounts Pete’s behavior. A wedge between Pete, his wife, and children grows in the aftermath. The married couple must take stock of their relationship. And decide if it is strong enough to overcome what has transpired.
The film has a great premise. A seemingly ordinary family vacation is blindsided by chance. Forcing everyone involved to take stock of their personal truths. The searing drama and dark humor of Force Majeure is only glimpsed in Downhill. While the plot is fairly similar, the writing and execution by the cast isn’t nearly in the same league. That’s a big surprise when you consider the talent in front and behind the camera. Downhill is written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. They won the screenwriting Oscar for The Descendants and also directed The Way, Way Back. The pair would seem like excellent choices to bring the Swedish source material to Hollywood. They oddly misfire here. Their pacing, script, and casting are not cohesive. Downhill plods along despite a sub ninety-minute runtime.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell needed to be unleashed. They are too subdued within the characters. Downhill would have benefited from their improv talents. Faxon and Rash most likely went tamer by design. The film has serious themes, hence the thought to muzzle leads who are prone to hyperbole. It makes sense in principle, but defangs a formidable cast. This is why the laughs are few and far between. Two great comedians are bottling their energy. Ferrell in particular looks out of place. Downhill needed more of a spark with a firecracker lead actor.
Mirando Otto is unrecognizable as the hedonistic hotel guide. She steals every scene from her famous co-stars. Her Austrian accent and deadpan delivery are the film’s highlights. Hard to believe Julia-Louis Dreyfus and Will Ferrell are the least humorous characters. I’ll consider Downhill an aberration and not their new normal. Downhill is a Filmhaus and Likely Story production with distribution by Searchlight Pictures.
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