Downhill offers further proof that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of the best talents in contemporary comedy. It also, unfortunately, offers another reminder that Will Ferrell’s charm is tumbling downhill. This American remake of the sardonic Swedish comedy Force Majeure, the breakout hit from Ruben Östlund (The Square), is amiable enough as a recovery from Oscar season. However, it doesn’t do American cinema any favours only days after Parasite mopped the floor with Hollywood heavyweights. Force Majeur simply has a dark edge that safe American cinema often lacks. Downhill is lots of fun, but it’s a green circle to the double black diamond of its predecessor.
Downhill nevertheless comes perfectly timed for Family Day weekend as it tells the all-too-family story of a vacation gone wrong. The Stauntons are in the Alps for a fun ski trip, but it’s a disaster worthy of the Griswolds. Shortly after some awkward family photos and moderate fun hitting the slopes, Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Ferrell) stop for lunch with the kids. A controlled avalanche provides an Instagram-worthy sight from their picnic table. However, the snow flies closer and closer. The avalanche comes snowballing at the family. Billie, clutching her two sons dearly, looks across the table to Pete for help. He picks up his iPhone and runs.
There are moments in life that ruin relationships and this is surely one of them. The incident leaves the family shaken and shattered. Pete’s abandonment proves more traumatic for Billie and the kids than the avalanche does. He shows signs of detachment and disinterest early in the vaycay, like booking the family into a resort that resembles Club Med rather than a family-friendly oasis. But this gaffe is a face-plant of a landing from a ski jump. There is no clean recovery.
Louis-Dreyfus wins battle of the sexes
The film follows the same droll he said/she said dynamic of Force Majeure. Billie remembers the incident one way, which mirrors the action the viewer sees. Pete recalls it quite differently. Battle lines arise as Billie (rightfully) marinates in the incident. Pete dismisses the severity of the event, especially when Billie complains about it to anybody who listens. He becomes the dude bro of the slopes, eager to leave his wife hanging to prove his manliness.
Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back) unfold the breakdown of the family in a series of sitcommy vignettes. Billie does a solo day and has a sexy run-in with a ski instructor while Pete takes the kids. (Further trauma ensues.) Pete blunders by inviting a younger couple to join the fun and aggravate Billie’s irritability. The scenes embellish the battle of the sexes at the heart of Force Majeure, but they’re not an even fight.
Louis-Dreyfus is hilarious and has the dramatic chops to elevate the material as Billie makes sense of Pete’s cowardice. She’s always been funny but she gives the character a lived-in warmth. Billie is lame and proud. Louis-Dreyfus brings her humorously and awkwardly to life as she tries to reclaim her groove and prove Pete wrong. By taking Pete to task and showing that living one’s best life can mean playing with the kids by the fire, Billie dominates the battle.
While the film’s few laugh-out loud moments revolve around Dreyfus, including run-ins with a nymphomaniac host played by a scene-stealing Miranda Otto, Ferrell can’t keep the pace. The energy just leaves the film whenever it tasks Ferrell with carrying the load. Ferrell has something of the Adam Sandler conundrum in that he’s outgrown the style of comedy that’s his forte. But unlike Sandler he isn’t trying new things. Downhill doesn’t ask him to hoot, holler, and explode with juvenile antics, and Ferrell doesn’t seem sure what to do. He fumbles through the comic set pieces easily enough, but leaves much to be desire. The directors are equally on autopilot, which makes the range in performances jarring, although the spirit of Force Majeure truly endures in Otto’s performance. She is wild and raucous as the hotel’s libidinous host. One wishes Downhill ran with such energy more often.
Perhaps the flaw of Downhill is simply by design. It just doesn’t “go there” in the way Force Majeure does with its parable of masculinity in crisis. Droll chuckles are fun, but they aren’t belly laughs that get people talking. The film mostly limits its social commentary to observations about screen time and social media jokes. (It’s one of the movies where annoying people keeping saying “hashtag #this” and “hashtag #that.”) Moviegoers who haven’t seen Force Majeuer simply won’t know what they’re missing. But when Faxon and Rash offer only the skeleton, they leave it to Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell to bring the meat. One does and the other doesn’t in this impotently amusing jaunt down the bunny hill.
Downhill opens in theatres Feb. 14.
Watch Jason Gorber’s video review from Sundance for a second take!