Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus lead holiday-from-hell black comedy Downhill, based on the 2014 Swedish comedy Force Majeure and following events on the ski slopes after a man’s moment of cowardice in the face of an avalanche.
As Amelia Berry writes, Downhill seems oddly uncomfortable with its source material—successful in its broad bawdy comedy, but breaking up the rhythmically deliberate tension of the original to inconsistent effect.
Downhill is a peculiar film. It is, ostensibly, a remake of beloved 2014 Swedish black comedy Force Majeure. Both films follow a couple on a skiing holiday with their kids, whose relationship is thrown into turmoil by the husband’s cowardice in the face of a controlled avalanche. Beyond this, however, Downhill seems oddly uncomfortable with its source material. The moody interstitial shots of midnight ski fields lifted from the original peter out after the first half of the film. The scenes closest to their Force Majeure analogs are almost uniformly undercut with deflating gags and one liners. It’s not that Downhill is a badly made do-over, the filmmaking is competent and the acting is sometimes excellent, it’s that in its determination to break up the rhythmically deliberate tension of the original, what’s left seems all too often shrill and abrupt.
It would be great to be able to talk about Downhill without dwelling so much on its source material but remaking Force Majeure with less tension is like remaking The Birds with less birds—people are going to be wondering why.
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What the film does do well, though, is broad bawdy comedy. Miranda Otto (Aunt Zelda from The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) turns in a fantastically over-the-top performance as a libertine guest-liaison with an outrageous Austrian accent. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ character’s flirtation with a sexy yet sensitive Italian ski instructor is a welcome moment of lightness. Even Will Ferrell’s character attempting to eat ribs while falling-down drunk ends up being strangely more affecting than any of the grim scenes of alpine yelling. Of course, National Lampoon’s Carry On Up The Mountain comedy won’t be to everyone’s tastes, perhaps especially not to fans of Force Majeure or of Downhill co-writer Jesse Armstrong’s work on Succession and Peep Show. When this material is handled with so much more enthusiasm and confidence, though, you wonder why anything from Force Majeure was included at all.
Downhill is not a terrible film. There are genuine laughs, solid emotional beats, and some really great performances. It is, however, a bafflingly inconsistent and occasionally jarring film that spends too much time trying to be something it isn’t.