“Downhill” is a reminder that one isn’t required — by cinematic law — to faithfully remake a Scandinavian darker-than-dark comedy about a marriage buried when a husband flees an avalanche that might have killed his wife and family.
“Force Majeure” was so Nordic, bleak and soul-searching that you could be forgiven for wondering, “Wait, this is a ‘comedy?'” at any point in its two squirm-inducing hours.
When you cast Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in your remake “Downhill,” and make it half an hour shorter, plainly you’re going for a lighter touch. “Downhill” suffers mightily in direct comparison to the intensity, physical and emotional peril of “Force Majeure.”
But it’s funny. Dark and funny. That it still hits, however lightly and more hopefully, the dark undercurrents of a marriage derailed by selfishness, distracted lack of commitment and the shocking realization that he’s not born to self-sacrifice the way she is — and she now gets that — is almost a bonus.
Pete is a real estate agent glued to his phone even though he’s arranged this stupidly expensive trip for Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and the kids in the Austrian Alps. It’s not like he’s distracted by work. There’s a younger colleague out living it up with his new girlfriend, traveling in Europe at the same time.
Pete must be envious, even though he’s got the beautiful lawyer-wife and two sons who got their mom’s good looks. Even though they’re in one of the most beautiful winter wonderlands on Earth, ‘”the Ibiza of the Alps,” their bawdy, too-helpful concierge (Miranda Otto, hilarious) tells him.
Pete’s in mourning for his dead father and Billie is being super-understanding. He’s booked them into a not-that-kid-friendly resort, which is worth an eye-roll. He’s dismissive of how dangerous the steep slopes are, at the soft European grading system for them — “their ‘black’ (most difficult) is our ‘blue.'”
She indulges him. That’s what couples do.
But those avalanche cannons that are the opening image of the film are there for a reason. They trigger avalanches in a controlled fashion so that snow buildup doesn’t bury the paying, skiing customers. It’s just that one lunchtime cannonade brings snow all the way down on the Stanton family as they’re dining, apres le ski, al fresco.
All of the other tourists “ooh” and “ahhh.” They’re snapping pictures. “Perfectly normal” Pete shrugs. Until the tidal wave of snow bowls them all over. Well, not Pete. He’s grabbed his phone and ducked out of danger while she had the presence of mind to try and shield their sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford).
One unfortunate departure from “Force Majeure” here is the level of peril. It is lessened. We’re allowed to consider that Billie, shocked and appalled, might be over-reacting.
But Pete knows what he did. And over-reaction or not, she is simply gobsmacked at what she’s witnessed. She doesn’t have to coach the kids into reacting the same way. They saw it, too.
“Dad ran away!”
The vacation then becomes a “Where do we go from here?” experience, Billie reaching for “We need some time” to talk this through, Pete reaching for any distraction — dining with the unfiltered concierge and her — husband? Latest ski resort pick-up?
Dreyfus has a lifetime of sitting on eye-rolling fury just long enough for it to utterly boil-over. Ferrell’s got the nervous, beady-eyed panic thing down pat.
Actors turned writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Way Way Back”) let us revel in the transition these two play out, from herding the kids and optimizing the trip, to grasping at distractions and/or exit strategies.
Watch the way Billie takes hold of the “This idiot is cavalier about our safety” thing when Pete has them on the pad, rushing them off to go heli-skiing. “Hurry,” the copter’s booking agent tells them, the rotors turning. “The weather’s changing.”
“The weather’s changing? WAIT! Changing to WHAT?”
Louis-Dreyfus bores laser-bolts through Ferrell in these later scenes, until the outrage finally can be contained no longer.
Hashing this out in front of Pete’s young work pal (Zach Woods) and his “hashtag” crazed hippy girlfriend (Zoe Chao) is less than ideal. But Rosie GETS it and shares her outrage.
Giving Otto several scenes, with her every loopy Teutonic locution laugh-out-loud funny, pays off. Pairing up sexually-frank Charlotte with PTSD Billie on a ski-lift is worth the price of admission — “Zo, zexually, you have been all ze blocks around?”
You have to judge what’s on screen in front of you in a remake, and “Downhill” is no doubt not the movie “Force Majeure” was. The shorter run time makes for a brisk choppy story that skims over the gradual meltdown and gets straight to it. Nuance is lost.
Some of the “Hollywood” touches are funny, kind of in-character, but jarring.
But there is real pleasure is watching these two interacting, the chaotic banter that both Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell have mastered, the shorthand they bring to “long-married couple” and shock this “incident” has given them both.
If you want to see “Force Majeure,” rent it and stream it. If you want to see two terrific comic talents circling around it in something lighter and funnier, then “Downhill” it is.
MPAA Rating: R for language and some sexual material
Cast: Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods
Credits: Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, script by Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, based on “Force Majeure” by Ruben Östlund. A Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:26