Though I haven’t seen the Swedish original that this film is based on – 2014’s Force Majeure – I’m aware of the critical praise it received regarding its commentary on the dynamics of both family and the male ego. It focused on a Swedish family holidaying at a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, with their mortality oddly confronted during a “controlled” avalanche that doesn’t prove the fatal disaster they’re expecting. For Downhill, writing/directing duo Jim Rash and Nat Faxon (the Oscar-winning co-writers of The Descendants) keep the Swedish locale but sub in an American family, a dynamic that seemingly gives the film an automatic disconnect from the original.
Perhaps in a bid to save themselves any criticism pertaining to comparisons to the original, Rash and Faxon have smartly penned their leads – Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as the gradually undone couple, Billie and Peter Staunton – as the type of assholes that most Europeans assume Americans to be. This mentality is certified when during this film’s “controlled” avalanche, Peter runs for safety, leaving Billie and their two sons to hypothetically perish; of course, he is unaware the avalanche is controlled, therefore confirming his cowardice in the potential grips of death. His reaction is made all the worse when the one possession he reaches for is his smartphone, and given that the family still have a few more days of holiday “bliss” together, to say it will remain an uncomfortable getaway is describing it lightly.
Peter tries to avoid confrontation and play it off like the situation was nowhere near as perilous as it has been made out to be, trying to prove his manhood in the meantime by tackling the more daring ski slopes and drowning his sorrows in alcohol with a visiting friend (Zach Woods). Billie opts to take a “solo day” and flirt with her own burgeoning sexuality – seeing as how Peter certainly won’t be getting any – by spending time with an increasingly horny hotel employee (Miranda Otto’s Charlotte, an absolute riot – despite how stereotypically European she might be) and a suitably handsome ski instructor (Giulio Berruti); her moments with the latter resulting in a particularly humorous, though awkward, bathroom visit where Billie realises how difficult it is to pleasure herself through her skiing attire.
With the comedically capable Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell headlining this affair, audiences may be caught off-guard that Downhill is only sporadically funny, with the film serving more as a reflection on relationships and how one can survive when the fight-or-flight response of each partner are at drastic odds with one another; there’s an incredibly agonising segment during the film where Billie brings out their two children in the midst of a fight to essentially confirm Peter’s timidity, something I believe proves far more intense here than in the original. Louis-Dreyfus provides the more adept performance of the two, embodying both the bitterness and vexation Billie harbours towards Peter, re-evaluating her marriage at a period where, because of her children, walking away is not the clearest option. Ferrell does away with any of the large theatrics we’re used to, and he excels here at playing with his character’s humiliation, but together it’s quite jarring that they have non-existent chemistry; even as a couple in the throws of altering emotions, they never appear like two people who ever got along.
As in-depth as Downhill appears to be, or perhaps wishes to be, it still ultimately only scratches the surface of its potential. The decline of Billie and Peter’s marriage could have made way for something particularly investing, and Louis-Dreyfus’s performance is so ripe with bite that you could imagine where she could have travelled with her character’s new-found loathing and liberation, but, seemingly in the filmmaker’s temperament to be classically American, the resolution on hand here is serviceable and uncomplicated – much like this film.
Barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in the Alps, a married couple is thrown into disarray as they are forced to reevaluate their lives and how they feel about each other. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star in this biting comedy.
Downhill (M) is screening in Australian theatres from March 5th 2020.