Two out of four stars
While not frequent, the practice of American studios remaking movies originally from other countries has been going on since the 1930s. Most are a huge waste of time and only a handful of them (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “The Birdcage,” “The Departed,” “12 Monkeys,” “True Lies,” and “Some Like it Hot”) have enjoyed both critical and commercial success.
In addition to too many of them getting “lost in translation,” they tend to be far too artsy for most mainstream audiences.
Based on the 2014 film “Force Majeure” (jointly funded by producers in France, Norway and Sweden), the ironically titled “Downhill” doesn’t know whether it wants to be a bleak comedy, a bit of social/family commentary or a slow-burn tragedy. It ends up not being enough of all three.
Given the complexity, nuance and dark tone of the original, this doesn’t come as much of a surprise and even the most talented actors and filmmakers would’ve been hard-pressed to make anything resembling competent or enjoyable.
After a brilliant, Oscar-winning first effort (“The Descendants”) and an almost-as-great follow-up (“The Way, Way Back”), actors-turned-writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash amassed a lot of goodwill and studio bankability. They could have likely made anything they wanted (provided it was a low-to-medium budget affair) and – based on the drawing power of their leads – would have gotten a green light from almost any boutique studio. They didn’t do that, but they came close.
Closer to the end of their careers than the start, Will Ferrell (as Pete) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (as Billie) are (on paper) as good as any possible on-screen pairing. Even though each hit it big on “SNL,” they had never acted on TV or film together. Given the track records of all involved, “Downhill” surely looked like a can’t-lose proposition.
From the first frame until the last, Ferrell appears lost, bewildered and totally without focus. In his defense, the fault lies mostly at the feet of Faxon and Rash. Ferrell simply was not the right guy for this role.
A decent comic actor whose strength is in pratfalls and smarmy self-absorption (“Anchorman”), Ferrell is given only one chance to exhibit his strong suits and it is merely a minute-long, half-hearted stab at recycling his blotto character from “Old School.” It misses wide.
For the rest of the time, Ferrell plays a mostly unlikeable husband and father of two whose heroin-like addiction to his cell phone could lead to the end of his marriage. In the 2006 “Stranger Than Fiction,” Ferrell turned in a pretty decent dramatic performance and – surprise! – it was the worst-performing movie of his career.
On the other hand, Louis-Dreyfus – who blew everyone away with her multiple-award-nominated performance in the 2013 “Enough Said” (opposite the late James Gandolfini), is one of the movie’s scant few bright spots. Delivering the film’s sole laugh-out-loud line of dialogue and hysterical bit of physical comedy, Louis-Dreyfus locks herself into fully-focused dramatic zone and totally owns the movie. That is no mean feat considering the limp-noodle, dead-end screenplay and the otherwise overall “meh” results.
“Downhill” is the kind of movie where knowing nothing of the plot going in is preferable. What you can know is at the start of a family ski vacation in Austria, Pete, Billie and their two sons are involved in a man-made “snow event” which initially appears to be life-threatening but ultimately is not. It is the initial reaction to this event by Pete which gets the ball rolling and like the proverbial snowball tumbling down a hill, the situation only grows bigger and more ominous with the passing of time.
Those already familiar with “Force Majeure” will likely be pleased that Faxon and Rash didn’t mess with the basic blueprint of the story. But they will almost certainly hate this new version. There’s no sting or bite, and the scant bits of humor land with a thunderous thud.
To add insult to injury, Faxon and Rash toss in a couple dozen F-bombs and some frank sexual dialogue (with an over-written sex-pot character played by Miranda Otto) which offers absolutely zilch to the story or mood. It is included solely for shock value where none was needed. This could have easily been a “PG-13” movie and the “R” rating will only further hamper its already iffy box office prospects.
For a movie coming out on Valentine’s Day (much like everything else this weekend), “Downhill” is thoroughly lacking in romance, great laughs or agreeable sentiment. It is to this lover’s holiday what a lump of coal is to Christmas. Unless you really want to break up over the weekend and are looking for the perfect catalyst to get it going, stay far away.
If, on the other hand, you’re a big Louis-Dreyfus fan, can tolerate sitting through a ton of empty filler for a few moments of greatness from her — and can do so without risking relationship turmoil — go for it.