The Stauntons, the nuclear family that unravels before our eyes in “Downhill,” are nothing if not familiar. We first meet husband Pete (Will Ferrell), wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their two temperamentally opposite boys, Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford), as they embark on a skiing vacation in the French Alps—nice enough folks blissfully unaware that in the annals of studio comedies, family vacations are a minefield fraught with plans gone awry, regrettable temptations, increasingly bad intentions, and, usually, things exploding.
But this recent Sundance selection is a more prestigious movie about a familial untethering, or so we’re led to believe—no National Lampooning here. It’s inspired by the much-celebrated Swedish dramedy “Force Majeure,” which I reviewed in 2015, and which is indeed a masterpiece. In this looser take, directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the general sweep and crucial inciting incident are the same: One morning, early in their vacation, a controlled avalanche barrels down a mountain during the family’s breakfast, coming so close to their ski lodge that it blankets the tables in powder and causes a brief eruption of panic. Billie braves the moment by hunkering down with their children. Pete, following a misguided flight response, abandons his family, returning moments later to order soup as if nothing happened.
This was a brilliant scene in Ruben Ostlund’s original film, and it’s a fine one here too, setting off a chain reaction that severs not only the vacation but, potentially, the fabric of the marriage itself. Pete burrows into a warren of avoidance, denial and outright lies; for Billie, the catastrophic near-miss speaks volumes about her husband’s commitment to the marriage vis-a-vis his own self-preservation, and she squirrels into her own isolationist cocoon.
At the heart of this moral tale are questions such as, how defining should one incorrect decision be? How much punishment does it deserve? Is redemption possible? Both “Force Majeure” and “Downhill” are essentially interactive films; it’s difficult not to game out what you would do in this situation, and discuss it in earnest on the way home.
Alas, “Force Majeure” maintains a consistency of tone—one of moving, empathetic ambiguity, even among the nervous humor—that this floundering American version never achieves. The directors cast two deft and talented comic actors in roles that prohibit their comedic gifts, relying on outside players for the comic relief, most notably Miranda Otto as a promiscuous concierge at the ski lodge. Instances of humiliating physical comedy, such as Billie’s failed attempt at self-pleasure in a public restroom, are awkward and degrading, both in and out of their context. While certain scenes throb with the scabrous marital vitriol that wouldn’t appear out of place in an Edward Albee play, that authenticity is undermined soon thereafter by stock characters speaking in cat-poster platitudes.
“Downhill” does not quite eclipse the 90-minute standard minimum of American comedy, and that’s probably a small mercy. The more it strays from the parameters of “Force Majeure” and become its own narrative, the more it loses us. In Ostlund’s film, I cared deeply about this family as it departed the Alps for an uncertain future. In Faxon and Rash’s tidy remake, I not only didn’t care about the half-baked mysticism of its climax; I also didn’t buy it.
“Downhill” is now playing in most area theaters.