Will Ferrell is one of America’s finest buffoons. The Saturday Night Live alumnus has spent an entire generation as one of cinema’s most consistent comedy stars, filling a role formerly occupied by such actors as Jim Carrey and Robin Williams. So it’s easy to understand why, after 20 years of playing characters such as Anchorman’s Ron Burgundy and Talladega Nights’ Ricky Bobby, Ferrell would want to make a leap to something a little meatier, much as Carrey and Williams eventually did. But his past success is against him: He’s come to embody absurdity so thoroughly that every time I see him onscreen, I can’t help but start chuckling.
That’s perhaps the biggest problem with Downhill, a black comedy from the writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (who broke out in 2013 with The Way, Way Back). The film, starring Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as an affluent couple whose marriage starts to fester during a ski vacation in the Alps, is a fairly faithful rendering of Ruben Östlund’s 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure—a biting and brilliant work that wasn’t really asking to be remade. But Hollywood never met a good movie it didn’t want to misguidedly reinvent, and Faxon and Rash, at least, have involved some serious talent in that effort. Unfortunately, one of their leads is a terrible fit for the job.
Ferrell plays Pete Staunton, a man grieving his father’s recent death and looking to relax with his wife and kids at a luxury mountain getaway. But early on in the film, as the family dines outdoors, Pete panics at the sight of a controlled avalanche barreling toward the hotel. He runs away without thinking, abandoning his wife, Billie (played by Louis-Dreyfus), and their children. Though no one is hurt, the memory of what happened is enough to start splintering Billie and Pete’s partnership in all directions.
Louis-Dreyfus has a similar comedic background to Ferrell’s—she even worked on Saturday Night Live all those years ago. Any time she’s given a meaty film role, she rises to the occasion; her last movie appearance, in 2013’s Enough Said, was marvelous. In Downhill, she’s similarly nuanced, letting Billie’s shock and pain over Pete’s abandonment escape out of her little by little. Her performance matches the understated irony of Force Majeure, where much of the dark comedy arises from the fact that neither husband nor wife sees the silliness in the circumstances that provoked their fight. Their most ridiculous lines are pitched with perfect seriousness, which makes the slow dissolution of their marriage all the more achingly funny.
With Ferrell, though, there’s no wry humor to be had; it just makes sense that a character played by him would, on instinct, run away from danger. The actor has spent so many years satirizing a particularly silly figure of American egocentrism—the can-do, beer-drinking macho man who’s always one minute away from throwing a temper tantrum—that I couldn’t set aside that persona. This is fairly subdued and sad work from Ferrell, along the lines of his more dramatic performances in Stranger Than Fiction or Everything Must Go; I could see him working to avoid a lot of his usual tics. But given that all of Downhill’s tension revolves around the simple set piece of the avalanche, Pete is hobbled by Ferrell’s reputation for playing fools.
All in all, the weaknesses and strengths of this remake boil down to the unavoidable fact that Force Majeure, a film I’ve seen multiple times and consider one of the best of its decade, isn’t a work that can be improved upon. Rash and Faxon’s winks toward the original, such as a cameo from its cast member Kristofer Hivju, serve only to remind viewers of a much finer movie. The advantage, for those who haven’t seen Force Majeure, is that Östlund’s story concept has an inherent magic that Downhill can’t help but capture.
The story’s central confrontation, which comes about halfway through Downhill, sees Pete lamely trying to defend himself while Billie finally articulates how she felt when he ran away from the family. Even having seen this dynamic play out in the earlier movie, I found it electrifying—Louis-Dreyfus is fantastic in the scene, and Ferrell is at his least goofy and most hangdog. Yet it’s not enough to overcome the pointlessness of Downhill’s existence. I cannot in good conscience recommend buying a ticket to see it when Force Majeure is easily available to rent.
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