‘Downhill’ struggles to reach its summit

Monday, February 17, 2020 - 1:26pm

NOSELL

Searchlight Pictures

Going into “Downhill,” I was most intrigued not by the fact that it is a remake of a popular foreign film, or that it stars top-tier talents like Julia Louis-Dreyfus (“Veep”) and Will Ferrell (“Anchorman”). When I saw the trailer, the first thing I said was, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie about skiing before.”

The premise of “Downhill” is simple enough: A family on a ski trip in the Alps is threatened by an apparent avalanche. The main source of tension, however, is the priorities between husband Pete (Ferrell) and wife Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) Staunton. As a cloud of snow approaches, Billie grabs Finn (Julian Grey, “Godless”) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford, “Seal Team”), their two kids. Pete, on the other hand, grabs his phone and runs away. This split-second fight-or-flight decision settles into a rift that sends the family into disarray.

Despite never having met before joining the project, Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are convincing as a couple. Pete and Billie feel very real as a married couple that has been together for so long that they have fallen into a rhythm. In one scene, they sit on the hotel bed eating french fries. In another, they brush their teeth in front of the sink, ducking and weaving around each other with perfect timing. But after the near-miss with the avalanche, and after Pete refuses to admit his cowardice, they lose their rhythm.

Watching the conflict play out on the stunning background of the Alps is surreal. My family has gone skiing every year since I was four, so many of the “family ski trip” aspects felt true to me, whether it’s one sibling dive bombing down the mountain while the other takes his time or a family game of Uno in front of the fireplace. But this is what gives “Downhill” its footing: It is a movie that is real and relatable, both in its comedy and its conflict.

The film is a remake of the Swedish film “Force Majeure,” a dark comedy that won critical acclaim and fan support back in 2014. “Downhill” was five years in the making, after “Force Majeure” director Ruben Östlund encouraged creating an American version of the film. As a result, this version in much lighter, finding comic relief during tense sequences via certain characters: Charlotte (Miranda Otto, “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”), a woman at the ski resort with a shameless tendency for blunt and shocking declarations, and Zach (Zach Woods, “Silicon Valley”), Pete’s work friend who is hilariously bad at handling awkward situations, are particularly funny, as well as a brusque member of ski patrol played by Kristofer Hivju (“Game of Thrones”), a Norwegian actor who also appeared in “Force Majeure.” Still, there is something that seems to have been lost in translation, something that makes “Downhill” feel like it’s missing a beat.

Despite the comic relief and the acting backgrounds of its main actors, “Downhill” is not purely comedic. Ferrell’s tendency to play absurd characters is thinly veiled by his portrayal of Pete, who finds himself struggling to reconcile his current place in life with what he really wants. Louis-Dreyfus’s tangible emotions hold the film together, whether they are a well-crafted facial expression or the cracks in her voice as she explains the avalanche event to Zach and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao, “Strangers”). These performances, particularly Louis-Dreyfus’, turn this married couple into a pair of characters that are flawed and relatable.

There are missteps, to be sure. The film is very strong in the middle as the tension builds, carried by Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell’s performances, but leads up to a very unsatisfying end. The Staunton family appears to go through a life-changing moment, but come out of it mostly unscathed despite the turmoil. Still, this is a film where the characters shine in the reality of the dark comedy of everyday life. One has to wonder why it took five years to create this film, and whether those five years were worth it. Still, I’m happy to sit back and watch — the skiing looks like a lot of fun.