Starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Downhill is a comedy about a married couple with two kids on holidays in the Austrian Alps.
When a controlled avalanche heads toward them during lunch, dad Pete (Ferrell), picks up his phone and flees, leaving mum Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) to protect their sons on her own, while crying out his name.
Pete’s act of cowardice stirs up a reckoning in their marriage as Billie and Pete are forced to confront the fact that in their family’s moment of need, Pete skedaddled.
Written by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash and Jesse Armstrong, with Faxon and Rash directing, Downhill is a remake of Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure.
Downhill follows Force Majeure’s plot bones, especially the precipitating event, but where it diverges is in tone.
This is perfectly encapsulated in one of the opening scenes when Ferrell’s character is sitting on his hotel bed, eating chips from room service. With a guilty look, he takes a chip, and then another and another. Oh, how droll, how relatable, Downhill seems to wink at its audience.
And it’s exactly its willingness to rely on cheap chuckles that marks Downhill as a movie that takes the easy slope rather than Force Majeure’s black run ambitions.
Ostlund’s movie is a carefully calibrated, deeply unsettling interrogation of seething despair, male fragility and middle-class malaise, in which the tar-black humour is squeezed from awkward emotional bursts.
In contrast, Downhill is broad, shallow and, well, very American.
And given that it doesn’t nail the disintegration of ego and a marriage like Force Majeure does, there’s not enough plot to sustain an already relatively truncated 89-minute runtime.
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Louis-Dreyfus comes closest to tapping into some of that primal rage evident in Force Majeure, especially in a scene in which Billie relays the avalanche story to Pete’s younger workmate Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao), but the moment feels unearnt.
Perhaps it stems from the fact the characters are underdeveloped – they have little backstory, no nuance – never really giving you a reason to invest in their emotional state other than an admiration for Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell.
In fact, Faxon and Rash go out of their way to make them as unlikeable as possible, archetypes of annoying Americans on holidays overseas. Even worse, they’re people who preface every request with a passive-aggressive “honey” – at least it’s not “babe”, because those are the absolute worst people in the universe.
When they file a complaint of the avalanche to the resort’s head of security (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju, who played a supporting role in Force Majeure), it’s peak American entitlement and it gives you another reason not to root for either of them.
Downhill’s failings are surprising given that Faxon and Rash both won an Oscar for writing the screenplay with Alexander Payne for the latter’s The Descendants, a film with much greater emotional depth, while the third screenwriter on Downhill, Armstrong, is responsible for the very sharp Succession, for which he won a writing Emmy.
Downhill is best watched without having seen Force Majeure because the comparisons are so unflattering.
But even without the knowledge of its predecessor, it’s still a tepid movie, easily forgotten soon after.
Downhill is in cinemas from Thursday, March 5
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