When “Parasite” filmmaker Bong Joon Ho won this year’s Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign-Language Film, the beloved Korean auteur used his podium to deliver a necessary message: “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” It’s a lesson any film fan could stand to learn, including the audience who opts to take in Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s well-intentioned but ultimately flat “Downhill,” an Americanized remake of Ruben Östlund’s understandably lauded 2014 black comedy “Force Majeure.” While the duo have snagged an enviable cast, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell taking on the lead roles of a married couple on edge (and then set right over it, swept away like, well, we’ll get to that later), and a script co-written by “Succession” creator Jesse Armstrong, it’s hard to ever shake the sense that everyone would be much better off just queuing up Östlund’s film and moving on.
It’s clear from the start that Faxon and Rash have a lot of affection for Östlund’s feature — hell, they didn’t even bother to move the action of the film to an American location, as it still takes place in a randy Alps resort — but are intent on putting their own twists on it. Some of them work (Miranda Otto gets an outrageous turn as a nutso concierge, a sequence involving an ill-fated heliskiing outing is nearly perfect), but most of them don’t (a reliance on the inherent jealousy social media can spark is about as basic a twist as anyone could craft these days). Mostly, however, the “Way, Way Back” filmmakers aren’t up to the task to navigate a tricky tonal balance, instead offering a floppy film that leans between cheesy humor and schmaltzy drama without ever finding the necessary, pitch-black medium that made the original such a treat.
At least there’s Louis-Dreyfus, who is most capable of occasionally bridging that yawning gap with a stellar performance. Like Östlund’s original, “Downhill” follows a family of four on a necessary family vacation: Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) needs a break from the daily grind, Pete (Ferrell) is mourning the death of his father eight months earlier, and their two very different kids (here cast as brothers, with Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford turning in solid performances) need to run free. Things are fine enough to start, despite the fact that the Stantons have mistakenly booked themselves into the “Ibiza of the Alps,” barren of other kids and with a vibe mostly illustrated through Otto’s gonzo performance as a liberated hotel worker and a single, incredibly depressing visit to a daytime dance club.
Ferrell, who has turned in plenty of dramatic-skewing work over the course of his mostly comedic career, is oddly restrained here, and not nearly as low-key skeevy as Johannes Kuhnke in the original. His chemistry with Louis-Dreyfus is believable, with the pair slipping into long-married comfort even as Pete is distracted by the promise of his phone and all its social-media avenues. It’s a cliched way to telegraph his apparent disaffection, with Ferrell relegated to a number of scenes in which he stares, glassy-eyed at his phone, while Bille and the kids huff around him. The object of his fascination: the traveling adventures of his co-worker Zach (an amusing Zach Woods) and his lady friend Rosie (Zoe Chao). Wouldn’t it be cool if the new couple came to meet up with Billie and Pete? (No, no it would not.)
The inciting incident of both “Downhill” and “Force Majeure” is a clever, ribald one that doesn’t hit quite as hard in Faxon and Rash’s hands. Lensed in nearly identical style to the original, it picks up after a fun morning of family-centric skiing, as the Stanton clan settle down for a sunny outdoor lunch on the deck of an amusingly Alps-themed restaurant. As a booming cannon indicates that yet another controlled avalanche is about to kick off, Billie, Pete, and the boys join the rest of the lunchtime crowd in gaping at the rolling, roiling snow coming…well, right at them. As interest turns to worry and eventually abject fear, absolute chaos breaks out on the deck, and Pete does the unforgivable: grabs his phone (his phone!), runs away, and doesn’t so much as turn back to check on his wife and children.
As with the original, it takes awhile for Billie’s blinding rage (and the boys’ creeping fear) to boil over. Armstrong, Rash, and Faxon’s script has truncated a few big sequences from the original film, though the trio have mostly kept in place the gobsmacking revelation scene in which Billie lets Pete have it while, of all people, Rosie and Zach are forced to watch (and occasionally participate). Along with the aforementioned heliskiing sequence, in which Louis-Dreyfus lets loose in ways both hilarious and horrifying, these solid scenes exemplify the best of what “Downhill” could be. And yet, the best exemplification of just that already exists: it’s “Force Majeure.”
Most damning, however, is Faxon and Rash’s inability to harness the zinging tone of the original film, which tipped between comedy and drama without ever forgetting the power of the other sensibility. There are moments of great humor in “Downhill” (cast Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, and Zach Woods in a film, and that’s kind of the guarantee), and even fleeting pieces of solid drama, but nothing ever gels together in quite the way it should — in the way “Force Majeure” already did.
“Downhill” premiered in the Premieres section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it on February 14.