Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 1, 2023)
Although Will Ferrell earned fame via his time on Saturday Night Live, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ stint on the show from 1982-85 didn’t do a lot to advance her career. Louis-Dreyfus wouldn’t find household name status until the 1990s and Seinfeld.
Because Ferrell didn’t join SNL until a decade after Louis-Dreyfus left, they never crossed paths there. This means 2020’s Downhill becomes their first work together.
Based on the 2014 European film Force Majeure, married couple Pete (Ferrell) and Billie Staunton (Louis-Dreyfus) take their adolescent sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) for a deluxe vacation in the Alps. There they ski and enjoy other opportunities found in the area.
The trip takes a turn for the worse when the Stauntons feel threatened by a minor avalanche. As the snow appears to envelop the family, Pete flees and leaves the others in his wake.
This only lasts a short period, but the event makes a major impression on Billie, who feels betrayed by Pete’s apparent act of selfishness and cowardice. As the rest of the vacation unfolds, they attempt to deal with the ramifications of Pete’s actions.
With Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell in tow, viewers probably expect a rollicking comedy from Downhill. Though the movie’s trailers don’t promise such a tale, they don’t actively discourage that view either, as they highlight the film’s humor.
Make no mistake: Downhill involves laughs, albeit on a subdued, low-key level. Both Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus embrace their less broad sides here, so the film emphasizes quiet humor.
Most of the movie pursues a more dramatic path, one that it doesn’t really achieve. Unsure whether it wants to fully embrace the character drama at its core or turn into more of a farce, Downhill struggles to find its own identity.
Perhaps the film needs actors other than Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, as their histories bring baggage. No, I don’t insist that both remain in comedies for the rest of their lives, but when a movie comes with two leads known for funny work, it stands to reason that viewers will expect laughs.
If Downhill went with a comedic actor and a dramatic one, it’d lose these notions – to a degree, at least. Sure, a movie with Louis-Dreyfus or Ferrell as a lead would inspire expectations of funny material, but the presence of an actor most known for more serious fare would leaven that sense.
As it stands, it feels like Downhill wants to hedge its bets and be all things to all people. While it aspires to give us a relationship drama with character insights, it also craves laughs.
That doesn’t just apply to our leads. In addition, secondary characters offer pretty broad personalities, as we get folks like Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a brash, hedonistic European who latches onto Billie.
Along with some other characters, Charlotte adds a sense of farce to the proceedings and destabilizes the dramatic core. The movie never lets us take it wholly seriously because it undercuts the rift between the leads with its goofy moments.
Not that I demand a movie needs to adopt one tone and never change, of course, but it takes high-caliber filmmakers to pull off the balancing act that directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash attempt. Faxon and Rash aren’t the ones to achieve this.
Prior to Downhill, we last saw Faxon and Rash as the men behind 2013’s Way Way Back, another movie that attempted to span genres and sputtered. With that film, they couldn’t decide what kind of tale they wanted to tell, and the same problem befalls Downhill.
With Downhill, this becomes less of an issue than the muddled Back, mainly because it aspires to tell a smaller story. Downhill really concentrates on the fallout from Pete’s actions during the avalanche, so it sticks with a fairly isolated context.
This should allow Downhill to open up and give us a compelling view of the challenges faced by a long-established married couple, but it fails to expand its horizons much. We don’t get to know much about Pete and Billie beyond the here and now, and that lack of context creates issues.
Did the Stauntons take this expensive Alps trip to save a marriage? Were Pete and Billie a strong couple pre-vacation? Was Pete’s cowardice an isolated issue or a symptom of his general disconnect from the family?
I don’t know, as Downhill fails to tell us much. Sure, it throws out some hints that Pete prefers to text pals than hang out with the family, and we see some of the typical “middle-aged people longing for a different life” theme that often occurs in movies like this, but these components don’t give us much backbone for the leads.
This means we find ourselves left with what we see and not much insight into the roles. It becomes difficult to evaluate how we should feel about the fallout from Pete’s actions when we get such a loose grasp on the relationship and the characters in a broader sense.
As our leads, Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus seem fine but not exceptional. Both tend toward somewhat lower-key variations on their usual characters. Neither breaks a sweat and they don’t elevate the material, but they don’t harm it, either.
Because it runs a mere 86 minutes, Downhill never wears out its welcome. Even with its faults, it remains fairly watchable, aided by the brevity of its length.
Still, I can’t help but view Downhill as a disappointment. With some good talent involved and a promising premise, this could’ve been a winning drama, but its refusal to embrace its inner meaning renders it toothless.