“Downhill,” starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell is the American reincarnation of the Swedish film “Force Majeure” from 2014. The premise, a family on a ski trip narrowly escapes an avalanche as dad grabs his cell phone and runs while mom hovers over her frightened children in an effort to protect them, remains the same as does the emotional fallout from the actions of the parents. What differs is the comedic elements which makes this a lighter film than its predecessor.
The stress is palpable between Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Ferrell) and it has nothing to do with the typical stressors of family vacations. This couple has issues and they seem to not be on the same page for anything. The stress builds as they attempt a family photo on the slopes. The photographer attempts to wrangle them all and salvage one attempt at a photo. While we laugh out of empathy, the next scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. Billie, seated next to her two boys and Pete sitting across from them at a picnic table outside as they dine on the slopes, places them in the path of an avalanche.
Awe-struck initially, watching the mounds of snow pick up speed like a tsunami, the entire patio filled with diners watch until it’s obvious they are all in harm’s way. Pete grabs his cell phone, something that he has been attached to the entire trip and an issue between the couple, and runs. Billie, fearing the worst, holds her children close as they prepare to be buried alive. Thankfully, the avalanche stops as quickly as it started, but the fallout from Dad’s actions are much heavier and detrimental than the crushing snow. There’s plenty of guilt and pent up frustrations buried deep within this couple that are soon to be unearthed.
This is a film that is a relationship study as it hones in on our true selves in time of survival. The anger that Billie feels toward her husband is boiling right beneath the surface, but it isn’t until Pete invites his work colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and his new girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) into the mix that we get the perceptual differences of the event.
This is where Louis-Dreyfus steals the show. Her character recounts the pivotal event from her perspective adding in the emotional trauma it inflicted upon not only her, but her children as well. Using her legal background as she cross examines her husband, she is seething. She has reached a point of no return and the truth, her truth, must be told and Pete must see the err of his ways for them to continue this vacation. Louis-Dreyfus gives us an impassioned performance that, as a female, I connected with wholeheartedly.
Unfortunately, this level of honesty and raw exploration of how a married couple buries so much in order to function on a daily basis is brushed to the way side in order to explore two other stories that lend little to no meaning to the film.
The first is Charlotte (Miranda Otto), the promiscuous concierge who tries to set Billie up with Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti), a ski instructor for “lessons.” The second is Pete trying to turn back the hands of time at a dance club. While these stories did provide a little levity, it took away from the story at hand: the consequences of our actions and reconciling these with ourselves and one another.
The true comedy comes when you can relate to issues like one kid losing a mitten and mom sticking up for the kids or one kid complaining all the time that he doesn’t like the cold. If you’ve ever taken two kids on a family ski trip or any trip, there are numerous comedic and relatable moments like this.
Ferrell is no stranger to drama (“Stranger Than Fiction” 2006) and he demonstrates his dramatic chops once again in “Downhill.” He portrays Pete as a very successful yet disconnected middle-aged man who has communication issues with his wife and kids. And together, Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus find all the right steps as they slide down that slippery slope of honesty.
It’s difficult to remake films to appeal to American audiences and while I appreciated a little bit more of a balance in finding the comedy of life and family, taking on the side stories took away from the film’s integrity. However, the topic and subject matter paired with Louis-Dreyfus’ and Ferrell’s performances are well worth spending the money to see this film. And if you’ve got the time, see the original.
Reel Talk rating: 3 Stars
A version of this story appeared in the Friday digital edition of the Daily Journal.