With a résumé like Old School, Talladega Nights, Step Brothers and Anchor Man, Will Ferrell owned comedy during the 2000s. And Julia Louis-Dreyfus is hot off the heels of one of the best comedy TV shows, Veep, an HBO program that lampoons Washington politics so well that it’s probably closer to reality than people wish The West Wing was.
The two joined comedic forces for Downhill, a remake of the Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure (2014). Actress and producer Louis-Dreyfus told The Hollywood Reporter that not only did she meet Ferrell for the first time in 2017 but that’s also when she pitched Downhill to him.
In Downhill, Pete (Ferrell), Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and their two kids are on a family ski vacation in the Alps. While on the vacation, Pete is envious of a co-worker’s European vacation, which he’s keeping an eye on through Instagram; Billie, on the other hand, scoffs at the posts’ hashtags, like #NoAgendas.
After a day of skiing, the family is about to eat at a restaurant’s outdoor patio and, in a very different manner than #NoAgendas, Billie says the family should eat soup so they’re all hungry for a big dinner after an afternoon on the slopes. That’s around when disaster happens: A ski patrol’s controlled avalanche hits, and Pete grabs his phone and runs, leaving his family to the snow.
The tension of whether Pete is a coward or just following survivalist instincts is covered for the rest of the movie — and a way for the viewer to reflect on ways they’ve acted in cowardice, as well (I know I’ve had a few).
Tensions boil when Pete’s co-worker Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend (Zoë Chao) show up to have drinks with Billie and Pete. Woods is quickly cornering the awkward comedy market with roles on The Office and Silicon Valley and continues the trend in Downhill, making light moments while Pete and Billie confront each other about the avalanche.
Written and directed by Jim Rash and Nat Paxton, the leading characters are a bit anemic. Pete is a real estate executive and Billie is a lawyer. Based on the quality of their vacation, it’s clear they’re living the life of the wealthy. Other than that, the two lack much background, except Pete is still mourning the death of his dad, who had died eight months before the trip.
As Pete deals with his father’s death, he says he’s following the mantra of living for every day. And when he and Zach go out, we see some of Ferrell’s patented physical comedy. But then again, I am so conditioned to Ferrell that I did let out a laugh when he darted away from his family when the avalanche hit.
Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus have good comic chemistry together — as they showed off when they misunderstood what a cinematographer does at the Academy Awards on Feb. 9. Sadly, they didn’t get a chance to really explore how far they can push comedy together in Downhill.
At 86 minutes, Downhill is OK. The movie’s setting assuages the mediocrity of the movie: It’s filmed on location in Austria. Sure, by the end of 2020 (or even before summer arrives), this movie could be forgotten, but in a world of big action, comic book stories and live action adaptations of cartoons, it’s good to see a return of the hour-and-half movie. (Bijou Art Cinemas).