Many people were surprised to see Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus presenting two awards together during this year’s Oscars. They were genuinely together and I’m sure many of those same people were thinking, “They are so good together. They should do a movie.” The truth is, they did and that’s why they were appearing together last Sunday. And while the two are indeed good together in Downhill, it’s probably not the movie you were hoping for.
Based on, inspired by or just a plain remake of the Swedish film Force Majeure which came out in 2014, Downhill is a comedy/drama (that is less comedy than drama) about the ups and mostly downs of marriage. I have no way of knowing for sure, but I suspect this might have been a passion project for both of them given that both have been married to their spouses for many years now. Louis-Dreyfus has been married to Brad Hall since 1987 and Ferrell has been married to Viveca Paulin since 2000.
The movie wastes no time setting up its story. Pete and Billie Stanton (Ferrell and Louise-Dreyfus) and their two sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) have taken a vacation of a lifetime to the Austrian Alps. Everything appears to be pretty rosy for the family, but we learn early on the Pete has been moody or difficult to get along with back at home due to his father’s death. But no problem, the family is on vacation! What could go wrong? Just a simple event that opens the door and allows us to see that everything isn’t so perfect after all.
It’s not infidelity or anything like that. No, it’s an avalanche that comes between them. (I’m not sharing anything that isn’t shown the movie trailer.) The family is outside dining on the patio of a restaurant when a controlled blast causes a fairly harmless, yet frightening, avalanche. While Billie’s instinct is cover her children, Pete’s is to grab his phone and run from the table. While Billie and the boys are considerably shaken up, Pete just wants to pretend that it never happened and move on. Only, Billie can’t.
Every time that Billie gets a chance to talk to Pete about what happened, Pete someone finds a way to avoid the subject. The longer the two can’t talk about it, the worse things get. Adding to this new family drama is the couple new “friend,” Charlotte (Miranda Otto) who is a manager of the hotel and Pete’s co-worker Zach (Zach Woods) who just so happens to be touring the country with his girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao). Charlotte makes it clear that she has an open marriage and Zach and Rosie share their views of living life for the moment. (Rosie has a habit of adding “hashtags” to everything, as in, during this vacation, they are going for #NoRegrets.) These two points of view don’t sit well with the Stantons who up until the avalanche had always been committed to each other.
In one very funny and yet painful moment, the couple both share their differing points of view of what really happened during that fateful lunch to Rosy and Zach. Billie thinks Pete ran away. Pete thinks he went to get help. It all goes “downhill” from there. The kids are stressed. Mom and dad aren’t talking and they still have the rest of the week to enjoy themselves.
While no one is surprised that the two leads are funny, this film also allows for some more serious acting for the duo. As the couple grows apart they both have to reevaluate their own lives as well. Not only have they been married for a long time, but they are older now and death has never felt so real.
Overall, Downhill is a good film if comedy/dramas are your thing. (This certainly isn’t a romantic comedy, so why the studio thought that releasing the movie out on Valentine’s Day was a good idea remains a mystery.) However, the film is uneven. While the family is portrayed fairly realistically, the side characters, although funny at times, are over the top. Although, there is a great scene where Rosy tells Billie how some things in relationships are just plain “black and white” and Billie responds with, “How old are you?” Life can, and is often, a lot more complicated than that.
Some the situations and dialogue gets messy too. One particular scene between Billie and a handsome ski instructor becomes very awkward, but it’s the scene that follows directly afterward that felt out of place and will make many people feel uncomfortable.
And then there is the ending which seems to wrap up the story rather quickly (there was similar criticism about the original film as well) that makes the film feel a bit disingenuous.
Main Image: (Jaap Buitendijk/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)
I write about arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.