“Downhill” Movie Review

     An American remake of Ruben Ostlund’s 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure”, “Downhill” follows the same premise, telling the story of a family’s ski vacation turned near tragedy when an avalanche abruptly makes its way toward them and the father runs for his life while leaving his wife and children helplessly within the jaws of potential doom.  What then drives the plot is no longer the vacation, but rather the now quickly decaying relationship between the husband and wife.  The American version of the story is a genre bending mess, where brutally awkward scenes are at first played for laughs, but then morph all of the sudden into emotionally weighty relationship melodrama which leaves the audience confused as to just how serious the story is intended to be.

     When you watch “Downhill”, it’s hard not to wonder if Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus have already reached their peak as actors and are now struggling to define themselves after two decades of stardom.  If this is the case, perhaps it will be this film that marks the beginning of the end for both, although it only takes the right script to come along and either of them could easily find their groove once again.  But this isn’t it.  Which is surprising given the talent behind the camera, boasting directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash whose screenplay for 2011’s “The Descendants” won them an Oscar, as well as their feature debut, 2013’s “The Way Way Back”, being well received critically.  Given the talent assembled, you have to consider this a miss for all involved.

     Even with the majority of the audience walking into “Downhill” knowing the premise, the expectation of clever and well written scenes designed to take full advantage of the legendary comic talents of both leads should be a given.  But there are hints of a darker tone within the first act, as we meet Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) when they arrive with their two boys at a high end Alpine ski resort in Austria for a get away vacation following a recent death in the family.  If skiing is your thing, you’ll instantly delight in the breathtaking scenery as the family glides effortlessly down some of the most gorgeous slopes in the world.  All seems to be going according to plan when you consider a family coming all the way from America to ski here, until it is revealed one of the boys, Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford), is just learning and is not able to keep up with his parents and older brother, Finn (Julian Grey), causing an immediate source of tension.

     Pete is that middle aged film character who is experiencing a mid life crisis and longs to be more like his care free co-worker Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) who are in the midst of a globetrotting vacation and just happen to be swinging by Austria at the same time.  He seeks to not only maximize the adult fun by having booked the family at an all adult and non kid friendly resort, but he also wants his wife and kids to do all of the most difficult ski runs, even though he is well aware of Emerson’s beginner skill level.  

     The conversations between Pete and Billie resemble more of a consistent squabble then anything of real substance.  Billie doesn’t want Pete constantly on his phone, so he creates private situations where he can do it anyway and remain out of her view.  With all of the distractions, the couple always appears disconnected while operating from different points of view.  If you ask me, the events in this film could not have happened and they likely would be on the path to splitting up anyway.

     The climactic sequence in the film was already shown in its entirety in the trailer, as the family is about to enjoy a patio lunch at the ski lodge when an avalanche comes tumbling down the mountain directly towards them.  As they watch it get closer, the patrons on the deck begin to panic.  And that’s when Pete grabs his phone off the table and runs, leaving his wife and kids who remain huddled together at the table, as the massive cloud of snow impacts the lodge.  But seconds later, all is well.  The force of the avalanche dissipated before it got to the bottom of the hill and only a snowy mist actually made it to their location.  And about the time Billie realizes they are fine is when Petes comes back, orders lunch, and acts as though nothing happened.

     “Downhill” then spirals into a clunky final forty five minutes where the family deals with now being trapped in a week long vacation far from home where mom and dad are now sleeping in separate beds.  And most of it is played in a serious tone where Billie verbalizes her disdain for Pete regularly, forcing the family to detach and often do things on their own.  Various characters are inserted into these scenes, but none of them are worth mentioning.  Meaning we spend the entire third act essentially wallowing in these character’s misfortunes with no payoff and none of the expected laughs that should come from a film headlined by Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  GRADE: D