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A chilly marriage

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell go toe to toe in 'Downhill'

Right 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.

"Downhill" doesn't live up to its celebrated forebear but it is not without its amusements, and it has a powerhouse in top-billed Louis-Dreyfus. While the original was a subtler, more ambitious and ambiguous black comedy, the remake mostly settles for toothless cringe humor.

Ferrell uses his quintessential man-child mojo to play Pete, who 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 (and Louis-Dreyfus' ferocious humanity) meet and elevate the film to incisive satire. Taking a page 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, such as clumsily troubleshooting one son's "phase" or playing out archetypal travel nightmares like a botched $2,000 tourist adventure and the dreaded question, "Can we just have screen time back at the hotel?"

As long as the movie's writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash 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.

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.

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. Ultimately, the movie's trajectory isn't an acute angle, but a slow-sliding zigzag approaching an interesting insight, then turning and heading toward a new one rather than ever going there as "Force Majeure" once committed to do.

— Peter Canavese

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