NEW YORK — Awkward moments abound in the comedy “Downhill” (Fox Searchlight) while laughs are likely to be far less frequent. In fact, the film’s premise is at least as well suited to be the basis for a tragic story as for an amusing one.
While on a skiing vacation in the Austrian Alps, an American family is enjoying lunch on the porch of their resort when a controlled avalanche suddenly hurdles toward them. Not aware that it is controlled, and fearing for his life, dad Pete (Will Ferrell) makes a run for it, leaving his wife, Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), and young sons, Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Ford), to their fate.
Once the snow clears, Pete returns and tries to ignore the incident. But, of course, his momentary act of cowardice and selfishness has fundamentally altered how the rest of the family views him.
The remainder of the movie is given over to Pete and Billie’s efforts to come to grips with their abruptly upended relationship. They’re by turns both aided in and impeded from doing so by the presence of another traveling couple, carefree cohabiters Zach (Zach Woods) and Rosie (Zoe Chao).
In adapting Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 film “Force Majeure,” directors and co-writers (with Jesse Armstrong) Nat Faxon and Jim Rash quietly uphold marital fidelity, partly by contrasting Zach and Rosie’s immature lack of commitment with Pete and Billie’s stronger, though now fraught, bond.
Yet a minor dalliance on Billie’s part and its aftermath are among the elements that restrict the appropriate audience for this largely unsatisfying remake. Others include the freewheeling — and supposedly humorous — attitude toward sex espoused by hotel employee Charlotte (Miranda Otto).
While trying to expand Billie’s horizons, Charlotte not only downplays the significance of intimate relations, comparing them to a handshake, she also mocks religious belief as the basis for morality. Although the tone of the script makes it clear that the audience should side with Billie’s more conservative outlook, their exchange is a clear bid for bedroom-themed chuckles.
Mature viewers who appreciate cringe-inducing humor — and can overlook some seamy material — will probably enjoy “Downhill.” For most, though, it will feel like a mogul-strewn trail to nowhere.
The film contains considerable sexual content, including a brief scene of masturbation and numerous sexual jokes, offscreen marital sensuality, drug references, fleeting irreverence, about a dozen rough terms and occasional crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is L — limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.