The number of English-language remakes of foreign-language films that improve on their source material can be counted on one hand — and a mangled one at that.
For years, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed (based on Andrew Lau’s and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs) and Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky (working from Alejandro Amenábar’s Abre los Ojos) had been the lone exceptions, but they’re now joined by Nat Faxon’s and Jim Rash’s family ski vacation dramedy, Downhill.
The Oscar-winning adapters of the masterful The Descendants and writers/directors of the delightful The Way Way Back zero in on the masculinity and matrimonial themes central to Ruben Östlund’s miserable, dry — and, naturally, critically beloved — Force Majeure (2014), shave more than half an hour from the run time and inject it with biting yet relatable humor, besting the Swedish original in every conceivable regard.
Fittingly, the official credit reads that Downhill is “inspired by” Östlund’s film instead of “based on” it, though the core components are essentially the same. Here, Boston couple Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) and their two preteen sons are having a terrific holiday in the Alps until one of the so-called “controlled avalanches” happening at their resort gets slightly out of control, making it look like guests on the café patio might be killed by the rapidly approaching snow.
Rather than help protect his family or pull them to safety, Pete inexplicably grabs his cellphone and books it, leaving his terrified wife and children behind, and then returns once danger has passed, acting as if nothing had happened while the other three look on in speechless astonishment.
The fallout from Pete’s behavior is understandably harsh, but instead of belaboring the point to Force Majeure’s tiresome, repetitive extent, the script lingers on Billie’s disdain and disbelief just enough to get her wounded feelings across. The film then revisits the conflict at natural junctures, prompted by Pete’s inability to apologize and his attempts at deflecting blame — or at least casting enough doubt that he appears less at fault.
Scenes in which the issue is dragged out in front of their sons or Pete’s carefree (and child-free) vacation-crashing colleague Zach (Zach Woods, HBO‘s “Silicon Valley”) and Pete’s Instagram-hashtag-loving girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) are especially caustic and allow Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell to show their impressive ranges.
Under Faxon’s and Rash’s leadership, the story is still not a rich enough premise to inspire a great film — it just barely fills its 80-plus minutes — but theirs is nonetheless a very good one. The duo recognize the potential in and limitations of the material and allow the main concepts to receive sufficient attention without wearing them out.
Most importantly, the humor actually lands this time, especially in the increasingly awkward scenarios that the couple find themselves in while apart from one another, including Billie’s rendezvous with a sexy ski instructor and Pete’s immature guys-only hang with Zach. And whenever Miranda Otto shows up as flirty concierge Charlotte, quirky laughs soon follow.
Missing, however, is any element from Force Majeure that teases a payoff and fails to deliver. There are no pointlessly long, faux-treacherous ski lift rides or solo wanderings in the woods that play like bad homages to the king of empty promises, Michael Haneke, and no shady-looking hotel cleaning man popping up for extended beady-eyed stares that likewise ultimately prove inconsequential.
Downhill is so thoroughly its own film that Faxon and Rash even get the lone cast crossover out of the way early in order to let their version breathe all the more. Kristofer Hivju (Tormund Giantsbane from “Game of Thrones”), who plays the “Zach” character in Force Majeure, is kind enough to join the Downhill cast as the resort’s no-bullshit safety supervisor, earns a few chuckles, then vanishes from the film.
Viewers still curious about seeing Force Majeure as a comparison and/or for completist’s sake would be wise to have those thoughts disappear as well.
Starts Feb. 14 at the Fine Arts Theatre