When the best thing about a movie is the title, that’s never a good sign. It’s all downhill from there? Exactly, and that’s the case with “Downhill.”
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell play a married couple on a ski holiday in Austria with their two sons. They’re quite well off, as Americans on ski holidays in Austria tend to be. There’s an incident, or what seemed at the time like an incident, involving a lot of snow. No one’s hurt, but bad feelings ensue — bad enough so that it’s not just the ski runs that go downhill fast.
If that plot sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because “Downhill” is a remake of Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure.” That 2014 Swedish film is a very precise, very dark comedy that’s desiccant-dry. By comparison, “Parasite,” speaking of precise and dry dark comedies, seems like a laff riot.
The closest thing to a laff riot in “Downhill” is Miranda Otto as an oversexed hotel employee. Her three scenes should be welcome as a jolt of energy in a movie much in need of it, only her character is so overtly crass as to be embarrassing. A nice touch is Kristofer Hivju as a glowering hotel employee. Most familiar as Tormund Giantsbane, in “Game of Thrones,” he was the bearded friend in “Force Majeure.” His presence is a rare bit of inspiration in a movie that’s almost unfailingly flat, flaccid, and toneless.
Louis-Dreyfus (one of the producers) and Ferrell are much-cherished performers and for good reason. But precise, dark, and dry sounds more like the name of a law firm than a description of what either of them is good at. With those deep-set eyes and sense of constant low-grade desperation, Ferrell could be a primatology textbook illustration for the species Doofus dad americanus.
Such unsuitability is a real problem for the directors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (“The Way Way Back,” 2013). They also did the adaptation, with Jesse Armstrong. Faxon and Rash are smart guys. They shared a screenwriting Oscar with Alexander Payne for “The Descendants” (2011); and they try to have it both ways here. About two-thirds of the scenes come straight from Östlund. The rest are new, aiming for something warmer and more standard funny: not outright shtick, but less European and more American.
It’s hard to say which scenes are worse. In both cases, there’s a general air of uncertainty. We know why Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell’s characters are there: They had reservations and must have spent a ton of money. Perhaps Faxon and Rash had reservations of a different sort. If they didn’t, they should have.
All that mountain snow scenery is pretty to look at, though.
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Written by Faxon, Rash, and Jesse Armstrong; adapted from the Ruben Östlund screenplay for “Force Majeure.” Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto. At Boston theaters, Coolidge Corner, suburbs. 86 minutes. R (language and some sexual material)
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.