Downhill. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. Rating: 6 (out of 10)
If the impossibly lovely winter scenery in the ads for Downhill look familiar to you, then you are among the fortunate viewers who saw 2014’s darkly comic drama Force Majeure.
Downhill takes place in the same alpine locale, and the film itself is “inspired by” Ruben Ostlund’s critical hit. But comparing the two films is like offering a nutty Tete de Moine cheese alongside those processed American singles: when it comes to chic apres-ski and uncomfortable family dramas, the Europeans have it down.
Starring in the Americanized version are Julia Louis-Dreyfus (who also produced) and Will Ferrell, in their first onscreen pairing. Buzz about the film received a favourable bump after the duo’s comic chemistry as presenters at the Oscars earlier this week.
They play Billie and Pete Stanton, a couple taking a dream ski vacation in the Austrian alps with their twin sons (Ammon Ford, Julian Grey). Things are tense from the start, with Pete unable to put down his cell phone and the boys at loose ends in the adults-only resort.
Then, while the family is having lunch on the patio, a controlled avalanche is set off. The Stantons perceive the threat to be real, and Billie rushes to protect the boys while Pete grabs his phone and runs for cover, abandoning his family.
It’s an inherent fear that every parent has: would I instinctively do the right thing in a time of crisis? Would I be strong enough, fast enough, brave enough? Billie’s world is turned upside down by the knowledge that her husband ran away, a fact made worse by Pete’s denial of what really happened. And for the boys, their dad’s cowardice is the first time they’ve seen the fallibility of one of their parents. And so what starts out as a seemingly minor event snowballs into a much larger marital crisis.
Agitation turns to outright anger with the arrival of Zach and Rosie (Zach Woods and Zoe Chao), a young couple who lend a crucial perspective to the avalanche and its aftermath. Zach works with Pete, who has been jealously following the couple’s exploits on social media, with their carefree hashtags like #NoAgenda in stark contrast to Billie and Pete’s ordered, bland life. Billie unravels over the course of the evening, in one prolonged, well-executed scene.
Also weighing in is Charlotte (Miranda Otto), as free-wheeling as Billie is uptight, along with a scene-stealing Kristofer Hivju (Game Of Thrones), who played the Zach role in Force Majeure.
Beneath the obvious farce and the enjoyment of seeing Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus riff off each other are some very serious questions about family and gender roles, the role of the modern patriarch, in particular. Writer Jesse Armstrong (of Veep), who tweaked the script along with writer/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, fails to find the tenuous balance between broad comedy and serious drama, which was bridged in the original by dark humour rather than throwaway jokes about masturbation.
I’d venture to guess that most of the folks going to Downhill haven’t seen Force Majeure and won’t be comparing the two movies, and they’ll be the better for it. Even still, the anticipated pairing of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell results in fewer laughs than expected thanks to a script that never dares to go off-piste.