If you have seen “Force Majeure,” the excellent 2014 Swedish film in which a marriage is tested on a family ski vacation, you’ll rightly approach “Downhill” with trepidation. An American remake of the film, starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, “Downhill” is being released on Valentine’s Day and marketed as a dark relationship comedy, and I suppose that’s a fair description. But it’s a frustratingly mediocre film; not terrible (no movie with the great Louis-Dreyfus at its center can be such a thing), but not especially good. Unlike the razor-sharp original, “Downhill” fades away quickly, like melting snow.
At its heart, “Downhill” shares the intriguing premise of “Force Majeure”: What do you do, midway through a marriage, when you discover that your spouse, under duress, puts his own safety over yours and your children’s? On holiday at a posh Austrian ski lodge, Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Ferrell) are having an outdoor lunch with their two young sons when a sudden avalanche begins to speed toward them, encasing the patio — and the screen — in white. When the pale fog clears and the screaming stops, everyone’s unhurt — except Billie, who has noted that while she stayed put and pulled her children close, Pete picked up his phone and ran.
This scene happens in the film’s first few minutes; most of “Downhill,” like “Force Majeure,” deals with the fallout from that moment; how the landscape of Billie and Pete’s marriage — like the hill after that avalanche — is suddenly changed. But the movie’s crammed full of mountain/ski footage yet oddly short (you wonder if a subplot or two got edited out) and its tone is uneven; some characters, such as a hotel employee played by Miranda Otto, seem to have wandered in from another, more broadly comedic movie. And Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell’s acting styles seem so mismatched, you wonder how Billie and Pete ever got together, or stayed married this long.
But nonetheless, I enjoyed “Downhill” purely for Louis-Dreyfus’ performance; we don’t get to see the “Veep” star on the big screen very often, so why not revel in her talent when we get the chance? As an exhausted working mom unable to keep from micromanaging the vacation — and a wife suddenly questioning her choices — she’s funny and moving and utterly believable in every moment. In a late scene, she’s talking with a new acquaintance who says adamantly that if her own partner behaved in such a way, she’d leave. “How old are you?” Billie asks. Thirty, she’s told. Listen to the lifetime of experiences and resignation that Louis-Dreyfus can put into one tiny, breathed word: “Oh.”
★★½“Downhill,” with Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Zach Woods, Zoe Chao, Miranda Otto. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, from a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, Faxon and Rash, based on the Swedish film “Force Majeure.” 86 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual material. Opens Feb. 14 in multiple theaters.