‘Downhill’: Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell Are a Married Couple in Crisis
Two titans of American comedy, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, use humor and a minor natural disaster to explore questions concerning relationships in the dramedy “Downhill.” A loose remake of the 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure,” “Downhill” stars Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell as Billie and Pete Staunton, a married couple who travel to the Alps for what is supposed to be a relaxing vacation at ski resort with their young sons, Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford). However, serious complications arise after the Stauntons find themselves in an avalanche while dinning on an outdoor deck, and Pete’s first instinct is to run away, leaving Billie and the boys to fend for themselves. The rest of the film sees the couple dealing with the aftermath, questioning the state of their relationship, and Billie especially grapples with seeing her partner in a new light.
“Downhill” was directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong. Faxon and Rash sat down with Entertainment Voice to discuss the film and adapting “Force Majeure,” a movie that, while it had some comedic elements, played as more of a drama. Having the leads that they had, it would have been impossible not to take advantage and inject plenty of humor. However, the characters are still grounded in reality, allowing Ferrell especially to showcase a different side of himself as a performer. Having him play some of the more emotionally intense scenes as they were written in the original film probably would have felt forced, and in the end what was created is a character that has the emotional truth of his Swedish counterpart while still allowing Ferrell room to be Ferrell.
“I think that with any adaptation, you take what you can from the original source material, and then at a certain point you have to sort of have to seperate yourself from it and make it your own,” explained Faxon. “Those things that we loved about ‘Force Majeure’ — I mean, the entire movie, but the things that we wanted to preserve for our version probably were the uncomfortable, awkward silences, the tension that exists between the two main characters.”
With Louis-Dreyfus as a producer, it makes sense that her character is more fleshed out here than the wife character was in “Force Majeure.” While in that film the focus was more on the husband, in “Downhill” Billie gets to branch off on her own a bit. After Charlotte, (Mirando Otto), an over-the-top sexually liberated resort employee, pushes her out of her comfort zone, she finds herself alone with Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti), a hunky Italian ski instructor. Louis-Dreyfus has fun here as Billie faces temptation, eventually putting herself in a vulnerable position in a public restroom.
Louis-Dreyfus gets vulnerable in a different way in film’s centerpiece scene in which Billie recounts her experience with the avalanche to a younger couple still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, Pete’s hip coworker Zach (Zach Woods) and his free-spirited girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao). It all unfolds like a play as Billie goes into great detail about what she believed would be her final moments, leaving Pete to give a feeble defense of himself. This dynamic is also interesting because it allows us to see the first cracks in Zach and Rosie’s relationship. Up until this point, they have been too busy galavanting through Europe and creating the perfect Instagram posts to stop and ask each other the tough questions one needs to before getting serious with someone. As impressive as Louis-Dreyfus is here, much credit goes to Armstrong for crafting this tension-fueled scene.
“Him coming from the world of his show ‘Succession,’ it fit really well with that sort of cringe factor,” said Rash. “I think it was all of us building on that so we could preserve the spirit of the debate that’s in ‘Force Majeure.’”
In a more lighter scene, there’s nod to “Force Majeure” with a cameo from Norwegian actor Kristofer Hivju. While he played the Zach Woods role in the original film, viewers on this side of the world know him better as warrior Tormund from “Game of Thrones.” In this scene that illustrates key differences between Americans and Europeans, he goes head to head with Louis-Dreyfus as a ski patrol supervisor who has little patience for Billie’s safety concerns following the avalanche.
Recalled Rash, “He came in for a day to do that, and from the beginning, all of his choices were beyond correct, and he’s just a fun, jovial person. I think that he was excited to know that there would be this altered version of something that he was a part of, and getting to play something that was completely different from where he was.”
At the end of “Force Majeure,” the wife gives her husband a chance to play hero when she fakes an injury on the mountain so he can rescue her. It’s snowing heavily, and we only see him running and then coming down with her in his arms. Although it’s a sweet scene, one cannot help but feel that she has let him off the hook somewhat. This is not the case in “Downhill,” as Billie has a great moment in which tells Pete what she really wants from him going forward.
Explained Rash, “We liked the idea of going up into the fog and seeing what happened. ‘Force Majeure’ does such a great job of that mystery when they come down, and both work, but because we were so into her story, we need to be with her in that moment up there.”
“Downhill” opens Feb. 14 in theaters nationwide.