Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are a prosperous American couple who are on a ski vacation with their two sons in the Alps. Are they having fun yet? That’s a question that hovers over the movie, as the family members hit the slopes and make pilgrimages to the alpine-lodge restaurant, or retire to their room, where they always feel vaguely guilty about playing games or watching TV, since they could do that anywhere. In the designer bathroom, Pete and Billie stand next to each other and stare at the mirror with humdrum familiarity. They’re on vacation, and doing their best to relax and enjoy themselves, but the very act of trying so hard reveals that something is off.
If “Downhill” were a Will Ferrell comedy, it might have played like “National Lampoon’s Ski-Lift Vacation,” full of snowy collisions and people making drunken holiday idiots of themselves. If if it were a Julia Louis-Dreyfus TV series, it might have been a backbiting lark of marital discord. But the movie, which Louis-Dreyfus produced, isn’t a farce or even a pointed comedy, though moments of it are unsettlingly funny. “Downhill” is an airy and dislocating drama, and that’s because it’s a remake of (or maybe you could call it a riff on) “Force Majeure,” the 2014 movie by the Swedish director Ruben Östlund that played like a slow-burn Hitchcock thriller injected with scenes from a marriage.
“Force Majeure” established Östlund as a major voice in international cinema (his next film, “The Square,” took the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival). So why court folly by doing an American remake of it? The justification is right there on screen as you watch “Downhill.” It’s not as intense or furrowed-brow an experience as “Force Majeure” was; it’s not trying to be. Instead, the co-directors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, whose only previous film was the overeager 2013 Sundance crowdpleaser “The Way, Way Back,” have taken the slow-motion-domestic-crackup foundation of “Force Majeure” and lightened it, but mostly stayed true to the earlier film’s vision of a husband and father having an existential meltdown. The story worked brilliantly before. In “Downhill,” it works…well enough. The new movie is a teasing trifle with something real on its mind. But in its winking 86-minute way, it stays true to what gave “Force Majeure” its force.
In each film, the mood is heavy with unspoken tension, and what that represents is the subtle breakdown of family closeness that has accompanied the 21st century, with its everyone-on-their-own-digital-device detachment. (Pete can’t stop peeking at his cell phone, all to placate his work colleague.) In “Downhill,” the free-floating domestic aggro mood sets the table for the film’s central incident: Pete, Billie, and their boys, Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford), are having lunch on the deck of the restaurant, with its spectacular view of the snow-capped Austrian mountains. They hear a distant explosion (as they’ve been hearing since they got there), and billowy clouds of snow start to edge toward them, looking a long way off, then getting closer, and bigger. Within seconds everyone on the deck starts to realize it’s an avalanche, and that it’s heading right toward them. What to do? There’s nothing to do. But Pete takes a form of action anyway. He runs to the back of the deck, leaving his family.
It’s that split-second action — the incarnation of everything selfish and fear-driven in the contemporary middle-class male — that sets the tinder box of tension aflame. Except that no one will even talk about it for a day or two. But now there’s no pretending they’re having fun — or maybe, in destroying all pretense, the incident can liberate them.
There has always been a pesky undertone of anger to Will Ferrell (even his name rhymes with feral). In “Downhill,” the irritation comes out without the usual comic quote marks, and it’s thrilling to behold. There’s a terrific scene where Pete and Billie go to complain about the avalanche incident (in which no one, ultimately, was injured but everyone was terrified), and the lodge official, played with consummate civilized Euro hostility by Kristofer Hivju, will concede nothing, as steam starts to come out of Pete’s ears. This is part of the 21st century too: Every corporate business, even the ones that are supposed to cater to you, out for itself. The other central character at the lodge is the outrageously noodgy concierge, played by Mirando Otto as a very tough nut of Teutonic free-love narcissism. (She’s a riot.)
At this point, “Downhill” becomes Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ movie, and she gives a wry, funny, altogether possessed performance as a wife and mother who has grown deeply, if temporarily, unhappy with everything she has. When Pete tries to make the situation right by arranging a morning of helicopter skiing (whatever that is), it just makes things more wrong. And when Billie, going off by herself, gets a ski lesson from a handsome young instructor, the way that Louis-Dreyfus plays this out is a sneaky tour de force of lust, despair, and older-and-wiser liberation. Does everything get resolved in “Downhill”? Yes and no. Which may mean that the movie will have an up-the-slopes battle in finding an audience. But for those who seek it out, it’s an agreeable spiked confection.