Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
With a chance to be free of the European comic sensibilities of “Force Majeure,” the dry dramedy off which it is based, “Downhill” decided to stay remarkably faithful to its source material. It’s still vaguely European, at least in its handling of humor and plot. While I had hoped it would distance itself more from “Force Majeure,” I can’t blame it for staying close. The 2014 critical darling was good enough to earn a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, after all. But “Downhill” almost failed to convince me that an English-language remake was necessary.
On a family ski trip to the Alps, Peter (Will Ferrell), Billie (Julia Louis-Dryfus), and their two teenaged sons spend their days on the slopes and their evenings in their luxurious suite. But during a family lunch break on a resort restaurant’s picturesque patio, a controlled avalanche (routinely used to break up the snow before it gets so thick it could pose a threat) heading in their direction begins to look as if it is rushing out of control. In the moment of panic, Peter does something that alters the way his wife and his children look at him. For the remainder of the trip, the effects of his split-second decision hang over the family like a cloud.
I, for one, welcome the end of “Veep” and the return of Julia Louis-Dryfus (she who has commanded television with three major series in three separate decades) to the big screen. Not that she was ever a fixture there. “Enough Said,” in 2013, was her last starring film role. Before that, you have to go back another 15 years. In “Downhill,” she shows she’s the queen of tragicomic acting. There will be better performances this year, no doubt, but I don’t know if I’ll be quite so happy to see anyone return to the screen like I was happy for JLD. Her tragicomic king is Will Ferrell, playing it notably sadder than we’re used to. “Downhill” examines relationships at different stages and under different conditions, and it digs deep(ish) into the trap of traditional masculinity in a way I haven’t seen so explicitly since “Brad’s Status” (a movie I adored that too few people saw). A movie can speak to you even if it doesn’t do it well, right? That’s what I was feeling here. Still, I appreciated the effort, and just enough stuck that I would consider revisiting this one again another time.
“Downhill” is a comedy of awkward, so full of simmering marital tension that you squirm in your seat next to your fiancée as she eyes you accusingly. Just me? It tears open wounds most movies let scab. Not that they were the first to do it, of course. It takes all its best bits, themes, and side characters from “Force Majeure.” But only the anglicized remake has Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and you can’t be piste about that.