In Downhill, an American nuclear family is vacationing on the Austrian side of the Alps. One day while eating lunch on an outdoor restaurant terrace abutting their ski mountain, a controlled avalanche sends a terrifying amount of snow hurtling toward the foursome. The mother grabs their two sons and shields them as best she can, expecting the worst; the father grabs his phone and runs away. Everyone lives.
That’s it. There’s no punchline. And the problem with Downhill, Searchlight Pictures’ remake of the 2014 Swedish comedy-drama, Force Majeure, is that you keep waiting for some comical explanation for the familial strife this avalanche triggers between long-married partners Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell). That there is no answer is satisfying, to be sure, but it makes for a film that seems at a loss of finding its own tone. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus both turn in compelling performances, but they are so at odds with this overall awkwardly wincing dramedy that the overpowering sense of unsteadiness they exude also applies to you watching the movie.
The tagline of Downhill, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back), is “a different kind of disaster movie.” That does not mean that Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus turn their first collaboration into a wacky riff on typical Hollywood formulae, such as Kate Winslet and Idris Elba in The Mountain Between Us. Instead of beneath snow, they’re simply stuck in a decades-long, comfortable if not thrilling, monogamous partnership.
Thus the disaster at hand is the impending confrontation between a wife disturbed to her core to witness the father of her children turning his back on her and a husband who tries to downplay his obvious shame as a lapse in judgment. They practice the steps of this shouting match in front of a bevy of supporting characters, from Miranda Otto as their delightfully bawdy concierge/self-appointed tour guide, Charlotte, to Veep’s Zach Woods as Pete’s younger coworker, whose idyllic Instagram lifestyle with his carefree girlfriend the older man envies. Like the audience, these side characters cringe away from the humiliating blowout they know is coming. Yet the buildup fails to achieve its predecessor’s level of tension, described by Variety as “Hitchcockian.”
Consider the titles. In legal terms, Force Majeure describes an extraordinary event that absolves all parties from liability. It’s the kind of nuanced situation that Louis-Dreyfus’ attorney character would salivate over arguing. By contrast, Downhill summons that American black-and-white thinking for which Charlotte scolds Billie: one-note, morose, a foregone conclusion of failure, even as this movie ironically proves that it is possible to walk up a ski mountain too.
But where it does succeed is in conjuring the very American terror of not being a team anymore—of your partner no longer backing you up in the way they promised. This is where Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell both shine, in varyingly surprising performances.
While both get solo shots where the camera is trained on their expressions alone, there is something deeply uncomfortable about staring at Ferrell’s face and seeing real pain there: Pete is grieving a father he lost eight months ago—a role model who nonetheless wasted his chances to see the world. So while his myopic obsession with an Instagram-filtered life cannot be fully forgiven, the yearning for adventure is earned.
Louis-Dreyfus has had more opportunities (with films like Enough Said) to demonstrate her skill at evoking pathos—to the point where Billie often seems cruel in how she highlights Pete’s pathetic traits. But that too is baked into the character: Here is a middle-aged woman who has always been expected to be the caretaker. She even protects her children without a second thought. She has never even been given the opportunity to grieve a life unlived.
To that end, Billie’s self-imposed “me day” in the middle of the movie is a quiet triumph and the high point of the film. Her impromptu private ski lesson with hunky, follow-your-feelings instructor Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti) feels like a companion piece to the Inside Amy Schumer sketch “Last Fuckable Day,” in that it shares the wry tone but also completely discounts the skit’s assertion that Louis-Dreyfus would at some point stop having a say in who she fucks.
It is a net positive for the universe that these two comedy greats finally got to share a screen together. And while awkward dramedy might not have been the most obvious choice, each of their roles feels authentically lived-in—faults and all. It’s just a shame that Downhill’s pacing doesn’t quite match up to its performances. The ending, a change from Force Majeure’s conclusion, trades resonance for a martyr-complex quick fix and a confusing final visual. Better instead to focus on where Downhill gets the metaphor right: how a supposedly carefree skiing vacation represents the difficulty of family time. You put all of this prep and expense into reaching the top of the mountain, only to have the hardest part—getting down—yet to come.
Don’t get her wrong, Natalie Zutter would love to see both leads take on another dramedy, together or apart. Talk other Valentine’s Day movies with her on Twitter @nataliezutter!