Sundance Review: ‘Downhill’ – Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell soar in high altitude comedy
Searchlight Pictures is lucky the first movie released under their new name exceeds expectations because a title like Downhill is ripe for puns. Directors Nat Faxon (Super Troopers) and Jim Rash (Community) remake Ruben Östlund’s underseen original, Force Majeure, and follow in the unlikely footsteps of fellow director Ira Sachs. The latter frequently borrows plots from international filmmakers Yasujirō Ozu and Satyajit Ray to construct new stories around his own characters. Faxon, Rash and writer Jesse Armstrong do the same with their characters Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), her husband Pete (Will Ferrell) and their sons Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) on an extended ski trip in Austria. When Peter abandons the family during an avalanche, his relationship with Billie cracks.
Dreyfus leads the film with her famous wit dialed back to save face for her struggling husband. In a scene where Pete invites acquaintances Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao) to their suite for dinner, Billie reveals through said wit and tears how Pete lost her and their son’s trust. Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s performance in the scene introduces emotional weight to the picture that desperately needed it. Until that point, there’s a palpable lack of chemistry between Dreyfus and Ferrell as husband and wife. Dreyfus is known for intellectual comedy whereas Ferrell is performs nihilist-slapstick. While both are comedians, they’re on opposite ends of that spectrum.
The film reveals Pete is mourning the loss of his father by more or less taking his family hostage on a ski vacation no one enjoys. They stay at an Austrian ski resort that’s filled with horny singles like concierge Charlotte (Miranda Otto) who notes the two boys are the only kids around. Pete’s selfishness becomes apparent when a controlled blast creates a minor avalanche and he abandons the family. Instead, Pete picks up the phone he’s tethered to and runs. Billie embraces the boys, hoping they live through the disaster or die together. This selfish man-child move by Pete hints at the reason for Ferrell’s casting. Known as a member of the media-dubbed “Frat Pack,” Ferrell has played a variation of the same underdeveloped man for two decades. Downhill addresses the persona Ferrell created by placing him in a seeming life-or-death situation and forces him struggle through accepting blame and grow from the incident. The discordant DNA of Dreyfus and Ferrell’s comedy is built into the story’s DNA, and both the movie and the actors rise to the occasion in a taut 85 minutes.
DP Danny Cohen provides a lush, wide view of the snow-covered mountains, not unlike the surroundings of Park City where the film had its world premiere at Sundance. The direction and editing is secure; neither show off because this character-driven dramedy knows when to insert a beautiful ski lift with a mountain backdrop and when to let the actors chewy the scenery. Faxon and Rash show their maturation as directors by assembling the right cast and trusting them interpret how best to play their characters. It pays off when Ferrell has an Old School-like scene where he gets wasted at a bar. What’s set up as a funny encounter with a guy Pete jealousy attacks becomes a moment of realization that he’s being a dope.
Reconciliation is the obvious destination of Downhill’s family, but after Pete’s embarrassing trip bar the story is strained by a paint-by-numbers conclusion. Billie has a day to herself where she is tempted by a sexy ski instructor and Pete takes the boys to a neighboring resort for the vacation they’re due. The two flip roles, unknowingly stepping into each other’s shoes. Thankfully Billie saves the picture from a complete saccharine ending by forgiving Pete and restoring him in the eyes of their sons. Dreyfus gives a no-bullshit ultimatum for Pete to rejoin the family in another highlight scene for the actress.
Downhill is Dreyfus’s movie as she plays Billie with an internalized pain that comes bursting out at the right moments. Her confident persona provides space for Ferrell to examine his childish characters; the one he plays in this movie and those his career is based on. The movie is a worthy spiritual sibling to Force Majeure, though not superior to it. The first and potentially only pairing of these comedy giants results in a maturation of both. Dreyfus’s acerbity and Ferrell’s idiot savant antics are largely absent. But we shouldn’t expect either to scale back in their individual projects. Downhill shows audiences both actors are aware enough to play with expectations without totally abandoning what makes them the biggest stars in comedy.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release Downhill on February 14, 2020.
Joshua is an entertainment journalist with bylines at The Film Stage, Out Magazine, Indiewire, and The Playlist. He is based in New York City and is a voting member of GALECA. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram at @joshencinias.