“Downhill,” by design, has no reason not to work. A remake of the critically acclaimed 2014 Swedish dark comedy “Force Majeure,” the film casts comedy icons Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as Billie and Pete Staunton, the married couple at the center of the story. But where the off-beat, tongue-in-cheek tone of “Force Majeure” elevated the European film, “Downhill” is a complete tonal misstep — and as a result, it falls flat on arrival.
The film follows the Staunton family — Billie, Pete and their two young boys — as they embark on a getaway ski vacation in the Swiss Alps. The inciting incident comes when the four are sitting at an outdoor restaurant and a controlled avalanche sweeps over the crowd. Billie instinctively covers and comforts the boys; Pete grabs his smartphone and runs for cover. The next hour and a half examines the clear tension that emerges between the two, as Billie is shocked that Pete is more occupied with his own work and image than the safety of his family.
This narrative setup isn’t the only thing the film borrows from the original. The visual style of “Downhill” is also clearly inspired by the stark white, sweeping landscapes that are highlighted so prominently in “Force Majeure.” Danny Cohen’s cinematography both supplements and steers the story of the Staunton’s holiday, and several scenes — especially in the beginning of the film, during which the family takes plenty of photographs against the clear mountain skies —are genuinely beautiful. The camera spends much time simply following the characters down the mountain as they ski, which, while visually appealing, slows the pacing of a film that’s designed to be a comedy.
But shortly after the opening, even the visuals of “Downhill” can’t redeem the inconsistent, meandering script, and the film both looks and sounds like a confused, single-camera television pilot.
For starters, the characters of “Downhill” are essentially all one-note, even though the plot requires that we see them as complex human beings. This is especially evident when Billie takes a break from her family to spend a day skiing on her own. The Staunton children frequently complain about their father’s inattentiveness and lack of authentic desire for an outdoor vacation, but then they ask to spend the rest of the day inside on their own devices. Shown later in the film wearing massive branded headphones, the children in “Downhill” are painted as caricatures of technology-addicted youth who would rather be anywhere else than on a ski trip.
The parents don’t have much going for them either. Louis-Dreyfus attempts to infuse Billie with depth and conflict, and her dramatic prowess comes through in multiple key scenes, but her character is so underwritten that audiences can hardly sympathize with her despite the strength of her performance. Ferrell, meanwhile, gives a performance that can only be described as unreadable. Portraying the classic trope of a flaky, confused father going through a midlife crisis, Ferrell plays the most misplaced character in the movie. Every time Pete appears on-screen, it’s unclear whether the scene is meant to be comedic or dramatic — and the actor’s expressionlessness throughout the movie doesn’t help.
The supporting cast, while more obviously serving a comedic rather than dramatic purpose, is forgettable. Actors who are usually enjoyable to watch, such as Miranda Otto and Zach Woods, feel as if they’re in a completely different movie from the central pair — that is, a cringe comedy versus a bleak, dramatic character study.
“Downhill,” despite its visual prowess and many featured talents, is unable to figure out which genre it wants to fit into. And while there’s something to be said about effective modern comedies that are as deep and meaningful as they are funny, “Downhill” falls short on both laughs and big ideas. Even with excellent source material and a promising cast, “Downhill” fails to stick its landing.