How a father reacts when a perceived avalanche comes towards him and his family was the focus of Ruben Östlund's Force Majeure. That film was marked by a dark sense of humor and an icy tone as it observed the fallout of a father's cowardice in front of his wife and kids. Nat Faxan and Jim Rash's Americanized remake comes at the premise from a warmer place.
Will Ferrell plays the father and Julia Louis-Dreyfus plays the wife. They have a natural chemistry together. Ferrell is subdued here, playing the father as less an ego-centric scoundrel and more as a schlub who has forgotten his role in the family. Louis-Dreyfus adds layers to her character, often anchoring the film with her more open performance as she processes the many emotions from having her husband run from her and her kids in the face of death.
American remakes tend to be messy, reductive affairs. In some ways, Downhill is reductive. Far less thematically layered than Force Majeure, the film instead focuses more attention on the wife's emotional journey. It also gives her more agency, particularly sexually, with the addition of a scene where she is seduced by a ski instructor. These changes help to distinguish Downhill from the original film. However, some of the acidic humor is lost as is the more nuanced relationship dynamics explored in the original.
Downhill's more sensitive approach to the story allows for one key scene to be an improvement over Force Majeure. When the wife confronts her husband, who has denied what really happened up to this point, in front of his coworker (Zack Woods) the film comes alive. This is largely due to Dreyfus who gives the scene more layers. She knows she shouldn't let this event define their relationship but she can't look at her husband until he can admit what happened. She ends up involving her kids in the argument making the scene harsher than anything in the original film.
Where Downhill falters is in its attempts at broad humor. The ski instructor is a caricature of a character we have seen in many comedies. The horny European resort worker, played with verve by Miranda Otto, produces zero laughs. The counterpoint to this character in the original allows the film to criticize the institution of marriage and works far better. The need to appeal to American audiences expecting big laughs from these two comedy stars leads to a woefully unfunny masturbation scene that feels shoehorned in.
At a scant 85 minutes, Downhill manages a fair amount of real drama. The ending feels a bit too spelled out as the filmmakers don't seem to trust their audience. It is a shame because the ending is one thing that needed to be improved from the original film. All in all, this is a better than you may expect remake but if subtitles don't bother you, go check out the original first.