The family that skis together can barely stay together in Downhill, a brisk little dramedy of errors set in the aftermath of an avalanche.
Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) have brought their two young boys along on a winter family vacation to the Austrian alps that, for a good 15 minute at least, has all the creamy upper-middle-class gloss of a Nancy Meyers movie: lux décor, easy banter, room-service French fries consumed by happy middle-aged people in plush bathrobes.
But when a routine snow-maintenance procedure on the mountain turns into a terrifying near-death experience — and Pete reacts by grabbing his phone and bolting for safety, leaving Billie far behind with the boys — something in their marriage cracks.
Downhill is a loose adaptation of a great 2014 Swedish movie called Force Majeure, and like so many things America recasts in its own image, the storyline becomes both shinier and a lot less subtle in translation.
There’s still plenty of cringe in co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s comedy: Pete’s increasingly ridiculous attempts to avoid confronting what he’s done; a heli-skiing plan shot to hell; a trip to a daytime disco that makes an excellent case for sobriety. Though the pair seems happy in the end to leave the true discomfort, and the deeper emotional digging, to their predecessor.
Louis-Dreyfus, at least, almost can’t help but bring more to the table; her eyebrows knit and jaw clenched in disbelief, she grounds her performance in the reality of a woman suddenly realizing she might not really know the man she married — or that she’s clocked his weaknesses way too well to let this episode go.
Pete is more of a standard Ferrell man-child, with a little extra messiness in the mix: Still mourning the father who passed away eight months ago, he’s not so much processing his grief as sublimating it into an extended jag of social-media envy and self pity. So when a younger coworker (Zach Woods) and his new girlfriend (Zoe Chao) broadcast their hashtag happiness from some lederhosen spot nearby, he wastes no time roping them in.
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If he’s hoping they’ll defuse the tension, he’s wrong; he may have been better off leaning on the resort’s social director, a loony Teutonic libertine in white spandex (British actress Miranda Otto, having a ball), or just apologizing while he had the chance.
While the movie shares Majeure’s indelible jagged-violin soundtrack and a nearly identical avalanche sequence (as well as a winky cameo from one of its original stars, Game of Thrones’ magnificently fire-bearded Kristofer Hivju), it takes larger liberties with almost everything else, including an infidelity subplot and much of the dialogue.
That’s why it’s probably better to take the story on its own terms and not as a pasteurized, neatly repackaged version of the original. As an attempt to scale the craggy heights of a marriage in crisis, Downhill may be more bunny slope than black diamond — a force mineure, but still worth the trip. B
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