(2020) ** 1/2 R
86 min. Searchlight Pictures. Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Cast: Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Miranda Otto, Kristofer Hivju.

/content/films/5196/1.jpgRight on time for Valentine’s Day comes a comedy of marital manners, one that perversely—on a weekend made for date night—questions the limits of love, marriage, and family. The name of the game is Downhill, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell’s married couple falling apart in front of their frightened children.

A remake of the 2014 film Force Majeure from Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund, Downhill concerns an ill-fated family ski vacation, turned upside down when a father (Ferrell) abandons his wife (Louis-Dreyfus) and two sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) during an apparently life-threatening avalanche. To first dispatch with the obvious question, no, Downhill doesn’t live up to its celebrated forebear, despite cosmetic signs that American writer-directors Nat Faxon & Jim Rash respect the source material (most notably, a meaty cameo role for Force Majeure’s Kristofer Hivju). Downhill is not without its amusements, and it has a powerhouse in top-billed Louis-Dreyfus, but where the original was a subtler, more ambitious and ambiguous black comedy, the remake mostly settles for toothless cringe humor.

The better to exploit Ferrell’s man-child mojo, Pete lost his father eight months earlier, giving him an implicit excuse to fear death in the present tense (at every opportunity, Pete quotes his dad’s borderline-inane insight “Today is all we have”). But there’s no excuse for the way men—first the cowardly Pete and then the resort’s customer-service rep, played by Hivju—gaslight Louis-Dreyfus’ Billie with rationalizations designed to invalidate her justifiable anger. These are the moments when the script (credited to Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, Faxon & Rash) and Louis-Dreyfus’ ferocious humanity meet and elevate the film to incisive satire. Taking a page or ten from the original, Downhill features a stomach-churning argument as its centerpiece, with Pete’s work colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao) the captive audience.

Downhill demonstrates its intelligent side whenever it focuses on family dynamics: clumsily troubleshooting one son’s “phase” or playing out archetypal travel nightmares like a botched $2000 tourist adventure and the dreaded question “Can we just have screen time back at the hotel?” At one point, Pete talks of the responsibilities of raising kids, quickly adding, “But you can’t forget about you” (little danger of that). As long as Faxon and Rash (The Way, Way Back) stay in this pitch-black pocket of uncomfortable truth-telling, Downhill retains its power. But since this is an American comedy, the tone must keep veering into broad comedy, with one-off scenes that go nowhere but grasp for out-of-reach yuks.

Miranda Otto fares best as thickly accented, sex-positive concierge Charlotte, a character used to suggest that Billie has traded away a life of sexual abandon for the convention of motherhood. Charlotte’s presence tees up the old standby scenes of a young-stud ski instructor (an Italian stallion played by Giulio Berruti) offering Billie the temptation of hot-and-ready extramarital nookie while a day-drunken Pete overestimates his attractiveness to younger women. Also annoying: a played-for-laughs ageist dig whereby Billie dismisses Rosie’s moral opinion not because it may be narrow-minded but because Rosie is 30.

Once the last vacation day rolls around, with Pete goading his family to hit the highest slope and “tackle the Beast,” it’s clear that Downhill will resolve by playing out a low-key cathartic climax. After this dutiful tidiness, Faxon and Rash tack on a “but is everything really okay?” (dis)grace note that’s both necessary and inadequate. Ultimately, Downhill’s trajectory isn’t an acute angle, but a slow-sliding zig zag: approaching an interesting insight, then turning and heading toward a new one rather than ever “going there” as Force Majeure once committed to do.

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