Ideally, we should be able to view remakes as their own creatures, independent organisms with their own blood coursing through their veins. But we’re only human, and if we’ve seen the original version of a picture, a new one can seem instantly substandard, the memory of the first showing through like bones on an X-ray.
That’s the problem—or one of many problems—with Downhill, an English-language reworking of Swedish director Ruben Östland’s 2014 chilly family semi-comedy Force Majeure. In that picture, a family of four—on a ski vacation at a luxe Alpine resort—are shaken when an avalanche threatens to envelop the outdoor restaurant where they’re getting ready to enjoy a meal. The father (Johannes Kuhnke) at first reassures his wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and kids that it’s a controlled avalanche and there’s nothing to fear. But as the tsunami of snow rolls menacingly closer, he grabs his phone and runs off, leaving his family behind. Everyone survives, and as the snow-dust settles, the father returns to the table as if nothing has happened. But the illusion of his devotion to his wife and kids has been shattered by one instinctual, selfish act. This little family, ostensibly so happy, is driven apart by an invisible wedge of ice.
Roughly speaking, that’s what happens in Downhill, too. Yet the two movies, despite sharing some DNA, barely resemble one another. In fact, Downhill makes you wonder if the forces behind it actually understood the earlier movie—if they caught any of its dark, needling humor, or grasped the subtle way it explored the potential fragility of marital bonds.
Who knows what they were thinking? Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash—who, with Jesse Armstrong, also wrote the screenplay, ostensibly using Östland’s story as inspiration—approach the basic plot with blundering obviousness. Will Ferrell is Pete, the hardworking dad who has finally taken some time to get away with his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford). Before the avalanche episode, we see this little family sort-of having fun on the slopes. Get this: one of the kids is a really slow skier. Ha ha! But the rest of the family, after racing ahead, has to stop and tell him he’s doing great, just to bolster his confidence. I know how hilarious that sounds, but rest assured, the laffs don’t stop there.
After Pete runs from the avalanche, Billie is so angry with him. Like, foot-stomping angry. She takes off to have her own afternoon, alone on the slopes. (This happens in Force Majeure, too, though the wife’s escape is played for something other than slapstick.) It turns out that the resort’s droll, sexually adventurous Euro-doyenne (Miranda Otto, who seems to have wandered in from some other, funnier movie) has set her up with a hottie Italian ski instructor (Giulio Berruti). His name is Guglielmo—who could pronounce that, LOL? Also, he has a super-hot Italian accent—it’s so hot and crazy, you’ll die laughing. He propositions her; she wants to, you know, “do it,” but resists. She is, after all, married. And the bonds of marriage are very, very important.
Meanwhile, Ferrell’s Pete wanders around in a befuddled fugue, failing to understand why his wife could be so angry with him. The problem—get this—is that she just sees things differently. They fume at one another. When they brush their teeth before bed, each has to have his or her own side of the mirror—that’s how angry these two are. Downhill will make you understand that marriage is very, very complicated, too complicated to explore, really, so why even bother?
That element of angry, solitary tooth-brushing was also present in Force Majeure, but in a far more understated way. There’s something comically melancholy about doing something so routine, so weirdly intimate, in the presence of a person you thought you knew, even as you’re coming to realize that you hardly know him at all. But in Downhill, everything is played for blunt laughs. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus—both gifted performers who have done much better work elsewhere—muddle through, recognizing that they’re making a movie about Trust with a capital T, but failing to get at any real darkness that might lurk beneath the movie’s shiny, slippery surface. It’s too easy to say of a remake, “The original was better.” But some remakes make you wonder why they exist at all, and Downhill is one of them. Getting through it is an uphill slog.