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‘Downhill’ seldom finds the funny in dad’s troubling blunder

Despite the best efforts of stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, remake of ‘Force Majeure’ isn’t nearly as entertaining.

An avalanche scare tests the marriage of an American couple (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell) vacationing in the Alps in “Downhill.”
Searchlight Pictures

You know the old story about a guy taking a sip of a beverage, making a face and then holding it out to a friend and saying, “Does this taste funny to you?”

If I urged you to try “Downhill,” I’d be the equivalent of that guy.

This is a carton of sour milk of a film, living up (down?) to its title as it careens in the wrong direction over an 86-minute running time that feels longer than a trans-Atlantic flight.

Despite the invaluable comedic/dramatic gifts of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, who do their best to inject some life and energy into the proceedings, “Downhill” is a pale, tame, broad and soft-edged remake of the far superior 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure.”

The only reason I’m not assigning a one-star rating and making an early reservation for this film to appear on my “Worst of 2020” list is a nine-minute spousal confrontation sequence that ranks with any scene in “Marriage Story,” and I’m not kidding, and more on that in a moment.

“Downhill” is set in and around a gorgeous, upscale ski resort in the Alps, where the successful American businessman Pete (Ferrell), his lawyer wife Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and their sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) are on vacation.

Midway through a day on the slopes, the family pauses for a lunch break on an elevated patio restaurant. Just as Pete is deciding whether he will order the soup, a controlled explosion high in the mountains sets off an avalanche.

The customers stand and aim their phone cameras at the huge clouds of billowing snow. Isn’t this something!

But the avalanche keeps on coming, and the deck starts shaking, and the situation becomes life-threatening as chunks of snow rain down.

Billie throws her arms around the boys. Pete grabs his phone and runs away from the table.

The moment passes. Everyone has survived.

Billie checks on her sons to make sure they’re OK. Pete returns to the table without acknowledging his cowardice, brushes snow off the menu and decides yes, he WILL have the soup.

How does a marriage survive a moment like that? How will the sons ever look at their father the same way again, knowing in the ultimate moment of crisis, he chose self-preservation over them?

There’s no redemption for Pete — and he only makes matters worse in the ensuing days. First, he’s in denial, constantly referring to the avalanche as a minor glitch in the vacation. He makes things worse by inviting his oddball work colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and the co-worker’s hashtag-loving girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) over for drinks without telling Billie.

Zach Woods and Rosalind Chao in “Downhill.”
Searchlight Pictures

When Billie finally explodes at Pete and calls him out — in front of Zach and Rosie — it results in that extended beatdown of an argument, in which Pete lamely says Billie’s account is merely “her truth,” and an exasperated Billie finally hauls out the boys to corroborate her story.

It’s a brutal, cringe-inducing, knives-out, cathartically effective sequence. If only the rest of “Downhill” had the same level of rapier wit.

Alas, the filmmakers resort to a couple of putatively zany subplots to pad out the proceedings. Miranda Otto flounces about as a hotel executive who takes catering to the guests’ needs to 1970s sex-romp levels. Giulio Berruti furthers the stereotypes as a sexy Italian ski instructor who tempts Billie.

In another strange interlude, Kristofer Hivju, still sporting the crazy red beard and his wild-eyed look from “Game of Thrones,” is the representative of the ski resort who bats away the complaints from Billie and Pete about the avalanche, telling them there were signs warning about the explosions, and “This isn’t America, where you sue when your coffee is hot.”

The scene seems to exist only so we can hear Pete admit he actually had seen some of those signs but hadn’t said anything to his family. By that point we’re well aware this guy is a gutless clown who acts in his own interests and is constantly misreading the room, especially when it comes to his boys. The way Pete acts around them, we’re already convinced Billie’s next husband, whoever that may be, will be a better role model for these kids.

Does this seem funny to you?

It didn’t to me. At least not in the good sense of the word.