The Swedish film “Force Majeure” was one of the best movies of 2014. The dramedy about the fissures that appear in the relationship of a married couple on a ski vacation wasn’t especially funny, at least not ha-ha funny. But the at times darkly comic film was lit by flashes of human behavior so recognizable to anyone in a long relationship — wry one minute, wrenching the next — that a viewer might not know whether to laugh or cry. A winner at Cannes, it was a perfect balance of melancholic and sanguine humors, with no room, or need, for improvement.
It is therefore no surprise Hollywood had to remake it.
The real surprise, however, is that “Downhill,” starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who also has a producer credit), is respectful enough of the source material to avoid cheap laughs and maintain the original tone of acerbic honesty. It isn’t great. It’s a watered-down version of the original, but it’s still pretty good: neither wise nor profound, yet sometimes smart and with sharp elbows — especially if you have nothing with which to compare it.
Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Stanton, a married couple who are vacationing in the Austrian Alps.
With their two sons, they’re staying in a fancy ski village, billed as the “Ibiza of the Alps” and geared toward party-hearty adults, not parents of rambunctious tween boys.
As it happens, there’s a more appropriate family-friendly resort a mere 20 minutes away. This unfortunate booking by Pete — who throws money around like he’s trying to impress people, or buy their affection, including blowing $2,000 on a day of something called helicopter skiing — turns out to be only the first of a handful of bad decisions on his part.
During lunch one day on the outdoor terrace of a chalet-style restaurant, a controlled avalanche is set off by the resort’s snow management staff, leading to an impulsive choice by Pete that he will instantly regret, and that will slowly, over the course of the film, start to eat away at the veneer of harmony and civility that the world sees when they look at the Stantons, revealing the weaknesses beneath.
In their roles, Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus resist a natural temptation to mug for the camera, wisely choosing restraint over release. Their characters aren’t quite as poignant as the couple in “Force Majeure,” but these two comedians give the drama a go, ultimately finding an equilibrium between jokes — and frankly, there aren’t many of them — and the film’s sometimes unsettling emphasis on the more hard-to-swallow comedy of awkwardness.
“Downhill” is, at heart, a story about two wildly different interpretations of the same event: one from the stereotypically female perspective of a nurturing mama bear; and the other from the somewhat more caricatured point of view of the fragile, egotistic male — nicely embodied by the fleshy, feckless Ferrell.
“Downhill” has a few yuks, but for the most part, it cuts the comedy, substituting that icky feeling that comes from being trapped on a train, plane or bus, trying not to eavesdrop on the couple in the next row. They aren’t exactly arguing, but rather stewing in simmering silence.