'Downhill' Review: 'Force Majeure' Gets A Watered-Down, Mostly Amusing American Remake [Sundance 2020]

If you watched Ruben Östlund's uncomfortable dark comedy Force Majeure and thought, "This is good, but it would be better if it was nicer and more watered-down," you're in luck. Downhill is exactly that – a remake that is more or less the same movie as its original – with most of what made the original so special tactfully removed.

That's not to say Downhill is bad – it's not. It's perfectly fine. And anyone watching it who hasn't seen Force Majeure beforehand might find even more to love. But even removing Force Majeure from the equation, Downhill harkens back to the era of forgettable '90s rom-coms, where any semblance of conflict is tidily wrapped up by the time the credits roll.

Married couple Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell), their two sons in tow, are on a getaway in the Austrian Alps, staying at a fancy hotel and hitting the slopes nearly every day. It's clearly not a very well-thought-out trip: the hotel they're staying it only has adults as guests, while a more family-friendly place is only 20 minutes away. But the family seems happy, if a bit awkward, with their vacation, even though Pete has a hard time putting his phone away to spend time with his wife and kids.

The happiness doesn't last long. While having lunch on an outdoor deck, the family witnesses a controlled avalanche. While it's a perfectly normal occurrence, the sight looks frightening – and grows even more so as a wall of snow comes rushing towards everyone. In a panic, Pete flees the scene – leaving his family behind to possibly perish. They don't, though. Everything is fine. And Pete has to come back and try to act like nothing has changed. But it has, and the relationship between the family immediately becomes strained, with Billie in shock and the kids ashamed of their cowardly father. Pete further complicates the matter when he later attempts to gaslight Billie and claim that he didn't run away at all.

Force Majeure used this set-up to stage a darkly comedic narrative, but any semblance of darkness has been stripped away from Downhill. Yes, the relationship between Billie and Pete becomes strained, but it never seems irreconcilable, even after Billie shares a brief kiss with a handsome ski instructor, and even when Pete takes days before admitting he was, in fact, running away.

Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are two talented, funny performers, so it should come as no surprise that they both manage to milk some humorous moments out of all of this. But the comedy at play here is limp – there are multiple jokes that boil down to the film saying, "Ha ha ha, Austrian people have funny accents!" That's the entire schtick of a character played by Miranda Otto, who does the best she can with a one-dimensional part. 

A few new touches work in Downhill's favor. Making the couple at the center of this story older – they were pretty young in the original – lends an additional layer to the conflict. They've been together longer, and therefore their sudden rift is all the more uncomfortable. And this film seems to draw the couple's children further into the conflict. But Downhill is so concerned with keeping everything safe, and fixable. It also seems way too quick to let the husband character off the hook, going so far as to add a subplot that has Ferrell grieving the recent death of his father.

This watered-down nature ultimately makes Downhill completely harmless, and as a result, inoffensive. Is it a great comedy? Absolutely not. Is it a worthy successor to Force Majeure? Oh lord, no. But it's a fairly breezy experience, clocking in at a quick 85 minutes. And while the material they're working with may not be great, it is fun to see Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell go head-to-head. Maybe they can try doing that again sometime in the future. With a better script.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10