Last June, a video circulated on Twitter of a family sitting on the balcony of an alpine hotel, framed by white slopes. An avalanche is triggered behind them – at first, the visitors reassure themselves that it’s a controlled explosion, done to regulate the amount of snow on the mountains. But the cloud of white grows closer and closer. Panic sets in. Right before they’re consumed, the father grabs his phone and makes a run for it, leaving his wife and two boys behind. Viewers were shocked. How could someone betray their family like that? Who could be so cowardly?
It took an army of dedicated (and mildly enraged) cinephiles to point out that the video wasn’t real – it was a clip from Force Majeure, a Swedish comedy released in 2014. The gaff did, at least, draw attention to how effective director Robert Östlund’s austere and unfussy approach can be. He never attempts to manipulate his audience’s sympathies, but lets them serve as passive observers in the breakdown of a couple’s marriage. No wonder the uninitiated mistook it for reality. The film’s American remake, Downhill, achieves none of this. It’s funny, but aggressively simplified, like swapping out a roquefort for a pack of Dairylea Dunkers.
Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell), alongside their sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford), are the ones experiencing the holiday from hell here. Pete spends most of the time fixated on his phone, as he pores over Instagram posts by his younger colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao). They’re globetrotters who live by a #noagenda ethos. Pete’s jealous. He engineers it so that Zach and Rosie end up dropping by their hotel room, but they turn up after the avalanche – or, as Pete tries to label it, “a moment” – has created a rift in the family.
Directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash have transposed Östlund’s portrait of human frailty onto the fussy, brittle world of the American middle class. We’re constantly reminded that this family are far from the comforts of home. Their heavily accented greeter Charlotte (Miranda Otto, a comic delight) boasts about her open marriage and thinks of sex as no more intimate than a handshake. A resort employee (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju, who featured in the original) reminds a flustered Billie: “We’re not in America where you sue because your coffee is hot.”
But the film is too forgiving of the father’s sins. Ferrell plays Pete as self-pitying and pathetic, never outwardly cruel, while the screenplay (written by Faxon, Rash, and Succession’s Jesse Armstrong) hurries him towards redemption. It’s Louis-Dreyfus who nails the tone here – she plays Billie’s grief with a winning sincerity, her reactions as sharp and disjointed as shattered glass. She grits her teeth and swallows her tears. But there’s an absurdity to her, too. The actor’s always been gifted in portraying a kind of self-centred indignance (played to genius effect in Veep), with a stare that could burrow a hole right through someone’s head. That’s the fire a retread of Force Majeure needed. What we get instead feels timid in comparison.