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Review: ‘Downhill’ muddles its mix of humor and drama

‘Downhill’ dinner
Alex MacQueen, Miranda Otto, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in the film “Downhill.”
(Jaap Buitendijk / Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Imitation may be, as the saying goes, the sincerest form of flattery, but, as “Downhill” sadly underlines, it’s no guarantee of a satisfying motion picture.

As directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and starring the usually reliable Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, “Downhill” is essentially a remake of the splendid Swedish film “Force Majeure,” though the producers prefer to think of it as a riff inspired by the previous material. Whatever descriptor you choose, your disappointment will be palpable.

The problem is not that this new version isn’t the equal of the 2014 original, written and directed by Ruben Östlund. That film was so shrewd, bitingly comic and psychologically astute that parity was never in the cards.

Rather the difficulty is that as written by the two directors (credited along with “Succession” showrunner Jesse Armstrong), “Downhill” gives no indication of why anyone would think dealing with this material was a good idea.

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Though many of the plot elements are the same, the original’s exceptional delicacy of touch has coarsened into heavy-handedness and the story line has taken on a sourness it didn’t have before.

Yes, there are a few moments of levity in what is being presented as a dramatic comedy but, with Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell frequently going at each other like characters in “Marriage Story Lite,” what smiles there are mostly come from the film’s supporting characters.

Set like the original in a luxury European ski resort (Austrian rather than French this time), “Downhill” introduces us to an American family poised to have a vacation they will never forget. Which they do, but not in the way they expect.

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Pete and Billie Stanton (he’s in real estate and hooked on his phone; she’s an attorney who likes to be organized) seem like a solid couple when we meet them with their teenage sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Ford).

Part of the reason they’re on vacation is because Pete has been grieving for the father he recently lost, and time away seemed like a fine idea.

The first person they meet is the chaotic Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a nominally free-spirited hotel employee whose heedless hard-core hedonism (“You will want to party all night,” she insists with scant evidence) feels more frightening than appealing.

The event that dominates the film, however, is terrifying in a different way. Sitting on an outdoor terrace and considering lunch, the Stantons are startled and then some to see a wall of snow headed their way with nothing in its path.

Supposedly a controlled avalanche, this frozen tsunami looks increasingly like the real thing, so much so that — in a brief but undeniable moment of panic — Pete abandons his family in order to be sure that he himself is safe.

Needless to say, this does not go over well with said family, and how that dynamic plays out over the days remaining in their vacation is what “Downhill” is all about.

The Stantons’ first idea, to complain to resort safety, does not end well, as the amusingly deadpan supervisor (“Force Majeure” costar and “Game of Thrones” veteran Kristofer Hivju) insists the controlled avalanche was “perfect.”

Far from perfect, as far as Billie is concerned, is not only husband Pete’s reaction but his sullen refusal to admit he did anything the tiniest bit wrong.

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Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus star in ‘Downhill,’ a remake of Ruben Östlund’s 2015 Swedish dramedy ‘Force Majeure.’

Things quickly get worse when Pete solicits a visit from Zach (Zach Woods), a friend from work who is touring Europe with his free-spirited girlfriend Rose (Zoë Chao), whom Zach likes to refer to as “Rosie the Riveting.”

Though “Force Majeure” was a brilliantly calibrated comedy of embarrassment and awkwardness, “Downhill” goes instead for solemn earnestness, undermining whatever subtlety of emotions it might have had, by staging things in obvious ways.

The bickering the couple does quickly gets ugly, a problem in a film without the dramatic heft to support that, and the notion that what we’re watching is even partially a comedy gets increasingly harder to support.

To be fair, “Downhill” does have another amusing sequence, when the irked Billie takes a solo day and ends up passing the time with a gorgeous hunk of an Italian ski instructor named Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti, hitting it just right).

This aside, even at a brief 86 minutes, “Downhill” is a misfire, unable to show either of its stars to their best advantage. Neither the actors nor the film can decide how to balance humor with drama and that is the heart of the problem.

'Downhill'
Rating: R, for language and some sexual material

Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes

Playing: In general release


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