A bleak comedy from a talented team, Downhill is a real conundrum. Some parts are done so well you want to hug yourself, while others are botched so thoroughly you want to cringe straight down into your seat.
Married couple Pete and Billie Staunton (Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are on an extended ski vacation in the Alps with their two middle-school-age boys. The Stauntons have money, and they project the rigidly cheerful vibe of upper-class achievers. But a near-disaster on the mountainside tears a giant rip in the fabric of this shiny happy family.
Directors Jim Rash and Nat Faxon attempt to mine the situation for both laughs and heavy drama, but they can’t quite nail the tone. Apparently, it can be done: Downhill is a remake of, or at least a riff on, the acclaimed 2014 European film Force Majeure.
There’s something about Ferrell’s face on camera. Even when you know there’s no joke coming, you kind of expect one anyway. His blank stare derails several key scenes and confrontations.
Downhill has a few great scenes, all of them powered by Louis-Dreyfus, who finds the heartbreak and dark humor at the core of her character’s dilemma of maybe having married the wrong man. She also brings the funny when required. Her formidable physical-comedy chops are showcased in a glorious scene concerning the difficulty of masturbating in ski boots.
Ferrell, on the other hand, is entirely unconvincing. This is partially a performance issue, but it’s also just a casting mistake. There’s something about Ferrell’s face on camera. Even when you know there’s no joke coming, you kind of expect one anyway. His blank stare derails several key scenes and confrontations. Whereas Dreyfus lets us in, Ferrell shuts us out.
The film improves slightly as it progresses, and it earns points for being about real feelings and problems. Directors Faxon and Rash know how make good movies in this key. They won a screenplay Oscar for The Descendants, and they wrote and directed one of the best coming-of-age stories ever, The Way, Way Back, with Sam Rockwell and Toni Collette.
Downhill could be a lot better, but it could be a lot worse, too. It’s nice to see a movie reach for something new in dramedy, even if it doesn’t quite land. Mostly, I found myself thinking of the filmmakers’ earlier triumphs. Skip Downhill and find the The Way, Way Back online.
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