Ruben Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure was the whitest black comedy since Fargo: a snow-capped satire that placed its bourgeois Swedish characters under a microscope and watched them squirm. On a narrative level, the film resembled nothing so much as an episode of Seinfeld— specifically Season 5’s “The Fire,” in which George flees a children’s birthday party after it goes up in smoke, exposing his every-man-for-himself cowardice. In Force Majeure, the George surrogate is Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), a prosperous, dad-bodied businessman who brings his family to an alpine ski resort only to abandon them in the midst of a controlled but still scary-looking avalanche, a decision that sets off a chain reaction of domestic resentment and antagonism that eventually ensnares a few other guests at the lodge.
Östlund’s apparent sitcom inspiration notwithstanding, Force Majeure has the skillful, minimalist aesthetics of an art film, capturing its action in slow, patient master shots that the director explained were inspired by nature documentaries. (His 2011 film Play, about gang violence, was similarly filmed.) By subjecting his human characters to a kind of zoological gaze—looking at them at a curious, bemused remove absent of obvious empathy but also clearly defined judgment—Östlund found a concise visual language to complement the film’s awkward silences and deadpan dialogue. His knack for realistically slow-burning sight gags was such that the film’s one-shot, middle-distance avalanche scene went unexpectedly viral as a faux-authentic meme.
Three years later, Östlund doubled down on the man-as-animal metaphor in his art-world farce The Square, a long, complex, ambitious patchwork of slapstick and social commentary featuring a memorably uncomfortable sequence in which a performance artist impersonates a gorilla with a chaotic result. Surprisingly, the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and vaulted Östlund into the front ranks of international directors. Not that this made him a household name, necessarily: With their calculated drollness and cynical subtext, Force Majeure and The Square were by no means universally loved or even commercially successful. Still, they were both palpably the work of an artist with an original and distinctive vision, movies that their gifted, idiosyncratic director really wanted to put out into the world.
The big question about Downhill, Nat Faxon’s Americanized revamp of Force Majeure, is not whether it equals its critically acclaimed inspiration, but rather why it was made in the first place. It’s not as if Force Majeure was a big crossover hit like, say, Parasite (which is about to get the remake treatment courtesy of HBO), nor is there anything in the material itself that’s begging for reinterpretation or elaboration. Whatever else you can say about Östlund’s film, it makes its points about male fragility and herd mentality precisely and without much ambiguity. It may be that the basic conceit of a household cracking under the strain of a single hairline fissure—a bad moment potentially undoing decades of marital commitment and parental devotion—is universal enough to survive the translation into English, and also dramatically fertile enough to oblige leads Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to push themselves out of their usual comfort zones. But while Downhill is dutiful in its reimagining, it’s equally unimaginative—the cinematic equivalent of a ski lift humming along and reaching its destination without any diverting detours. And while Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are both good, neither comes close to elevating the film.
This week, Keith Phipps wrote for The Ringer that “Will Ferrell has always been funny, but he’s never just been funny,” an apt observation that gets at the minor disappointment of his performance here. As Pete Staunton, Ferrell isn’t just funny—he’s soulful and awkward and even believably sentimental, selling the detail (absent in Force Majeure) that the character is mourning his father’s death—but unfortunately he’s also nearly funny enough, considering the existential-punching-bag aspect of the role. Any time you watch a remake, you wait to see what’s been kept and what’s been cut out, and bizarrely, Faxon and his cowriters Jim Rash and Jesse Armstrong (of Succession) got rid of the sequence in Östlund’s movie that ostensibly suits Ferrell’s gifts the best—the brutally distended passage when a guilty-conscienced Tomas, fearing the total alienation of his loved ones, collapses into blubbering sobs that wind up sounding feebly faked. It’s a torrential downpour of crocodile tears that’s almost impossible to watch while also being devastatingly funny. This omission of the “man-cry” scene shows that Downhill’s makers are either thinking too hard about what they’re doing or else not thinking at all. If there’s one thing that Ferrell can do brilliantly, it’s lock himself into a glass case of emotion and smash his way out. Not letting him fall apart onscreen is a critical missed opportunity. Instead, Downhill downplays its male lead’s immaturity, arrogance, and diffidence (all the ambivalent, recognizably qualities exhibited by his Swedish doppelgänger) and renders him instead a fairly familiar sort of nebbish beta-male, one whose quiet introversion and placating personality never come into focus.
Louis-Dreyfus digs a bit deeper than her costar—her performance is the only area where Downhill arguably improves on Force Majeure. Lisa Loven Kongsli’s Ebba was a bit of a blank slate—a wary, watchful foil for Östlund’s antihero—but Dreyfus makes Billie Staunton an edgy, eccentric figure, a woman whose instincts walk a razor’s edge between maternal resourcefulness and control-freakery. Her role has been fleshed out considerably, including a perfunctory subplot involving a handsome ski instructor who’s there just to give the actress a chance to practice some naughty physical comedy, and the result is a more balanced portrait of spousal grievance, with Billie’s self-acknowledged faults and insecurities leveraged against Pete’s hateful denials of wrongdoing. Where Östlund made his female lead’s accusations of husbandly abandonment merely caustically hilarious, Faxon has Louis-Dreyfus play the character’s hurt as bone-deep, and there’s real, uncomfortable emotion in her acting, albeit only for a few fleeting minutes at a time before things grind back into rote sitcom territory.
At times, it seems that Faxon understands that what made Force Majeure so uniquely effective was its visual style, and he gamely tries to emulate it, photographing the mountain ranges and ski slopes with a stately, patient grace. But he just doesn’t have the filmmaking instincts to conjure up any poetic imagery, and he’s either too tentative (or too honest) to steal Östlund’s best stuff, like the wonderfully evocative and ambiguous passage where Ebba allows Tomas to “rescue” her to reassert his masculinity in front of the children—a twist that’s badly staged in Downhill; or to even attempt something as spectacular as Force Majeure’s climax, which pays off the script’s simmering tension with some adroit-thriller-like staging. Downhill just doesn’t have the finesse for those kinds of maneuvers, and the abruptness with which the movie ends, far from being startling, makes it feel as if Faxon and Co. just suddenly threw their hands up after achieving the bare minimum 80-minute run time. Even for a comedy that means to marinate in embarrassment, Downhill seems a bit ashamed of its own existence; its only consolation may be that nobody is going to remember it by the end of the year (or the winter) anyway.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.