Last summer, a shocking viral video began making its way around Twitter. In the clip, a man at a ski resort makes a panicked dash for safety during a controlled avalanche, abandoning his wife and two children to the wall of snow rushing toward them. Varying responses were tweeted, most of which expressed their disbelief that someone could behave so selfishly. What many of them didn’t know, but a number of annoyed and amused cinephiles were more than eager to tell them, was that this wasn’t cellphone footage of a real incident. It was a scene from Force Majeure, a 2014 Swedish comedy about male ego in crisis. That the moment could be confused for reality… well, it was like a punchline out of the film itself. Ruben Östlund, its exacting writer-director, must have smiled when he heard. This isn’t the only blip on the pop-culture radar Force Majeure is presently enjoying. Was its second life as an unlikely meme just sly viral marketing for its transformation into a kinder, gentler Will Ferrell comedy? Downhill, a new remake from writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, is pretty much exactly what you might expect from an American version. Essentially, if you wished Force Majeure was in English, was less ambiguous, more sentimental, superficial, and broadly dumbed down than Downhill is your movie.
While Force Majeure was a bone-dry, scathingly funny portrait of a marriage destabilized by a kneejerk act of self-preservation, the humor in Downhill is broader, with bawdy masturbation mishaps and gags about hashtags. It’s also more forgiving, softening the assault on fragile masculinity with notes of sentimentality. And gone, of course, is the precision of Östlund’s craft; dash any unrealistic hopes of seeing Ron Burgundy stumble through some carefully and unnerving composed long takes. The overall premise remains intact, however. Its inciting incident is still that now internet-famous failure of nerve — the moment when a well-off businessman, here Pete (Ferrell), instinctively sprints away from the billowy cloud of snow rapidly approaching the mountainside patio where he’s having breakfast with his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and their two preteen boys. The avalanche is a false alarm, an optical illusion of doom; all it really does it blow some flakes over the alarmed guests. But it certainly feels like a brush with death while it’s happening. And it casts a cloud of resentment and shame over the family’s vacation in the Alps, as Pete stubbornly refuses to acknowledge the cowardice of his actions and Billie simmers with resentment at a man with no apparent protective instincts toward his wife and children.
Sounds hilarious, no? In Östlund’s hands, it genuinely was; Force Majeure, for all the chilly remove of its filmmaking, found constant, inspired cringe comedy in its patriarch’s crumbling self-image and pathological rejection of responsibility. Downhill strains for laughs of a different sort, many of them pitched to the wheelhouse of its TV-trained stars. Faxon and Rash, play up the disparity between Pete and Billie’s buttoned-up American marriage and the blasé sexual liberation of their Swiss hosts, including Miranda Otto as a over-sharing, polyamorous hotel manager. Zach Woods is also on hand as Pete’s coworker vacationing through Europe with his girlfriend (Zoe Chao), and dropping awkward asides during the scene where Billie finally addresses the elephant in the room.
If there’s a real draw to this bastardized variation, it’s Louis-Dreyfus. The film’s at its best when it focuses on her, and she really taps into Billie’s frustration and disappointment, supplying what sporadic pathos the film achieves but also grounding the wackier interludes in recognizable emotion. It’s to Downhill‘s credit that it does try to imagine a life for Billie outside of her domestic discord — conceiving, for example, of flirtation with infidelity colored by her own midlife anxiety. Ferrell, on the other hand, is miscast. There’s a certain appeal to seeing this frequently over-the-top performer dial down his bellowing tendencies; he’s working in a mode here much closer to the change-of-pace melancholy of Everything Must Go than the exaggerated shtick of his past star vehicles. But with the SNL alum in the role, Pete comes across like a dopey sitcom dad from the start — how far, you wonder, can he really fall in the estimations of his family? Downhill doesn’t so much unbalance the gender roles of his marriage as nudge Pete toward the realization that he need to be more engaged father. It’s a pretty mawkish conflict.
To Rash and Faxon’s credit, it’s at least pretty good to see that they don’t try to make a carbon copy of Force Majeure. While keeping the overarching conflict, there’s still plenty of scenes that are different with a move towards clarity that works to align your allegiances with Billie. And yet, despite removing the ambiguity, Downhill still seems oddly muddled in its tone. But maybe it’s good that Downhill doesn’t try to replicate Östlund’s more withering farce. The film could have taken the easiest route of many American remakes and trace over its predecessor entirely, offering a scene-for-scene copy. But Force Majeure exists. Should one pretend it doesn’t simply to give this less ambiguous remake, with its subtext-shattering speeches and blandly bright imagery, a fair shake? There’s maybe one ideal audience for Downhill, and that’s the folks who have never seen or maybe even heard of the much better film on which it’s based. But will they be distracted at how quickly the filmmakers were able to make a movie out of that outrageous viral video of a dude totally bailing on his family? For some, probably.