DOWNHILL review by Shyam Vedantam – Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus hit the ski slopes

DOWNHILL review by Shyam Vedantam – Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus hit the ski slopes

Every relationship has its ups and downs. Some stresses are internal, others external. To relieve these stresses, some opt to go on a vacation. This is what one couple does in DOWNHILL. The film is about Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) taking their two sons on a vacation to Austria for a few days to a resort with the intent to ski. After a few scenes of them getting acclimated to their resort and skiing, the family is getting ready for lunch at an outdoor patio. Suddenly, they hear a boom. They see an avalanche rumbling towards them. As it closes in on them, Pete grabs his phone and runs inside. Billie, on the other side of the table with the two sons, hugs her children tightly and tries to protect her children from imminent death.

Surprisingly, it turns out to be a false alarm, as it is just routine drill. Pete walks back and orders soup. Billie is still visibly shaken, incredulous that she is still alive and, moreover, how her husband ditched their family. How they handle their distinct reactions to the event make up the rest of the story. The tension between them is a tightrope, held taut by their two performances.

DOWNHILL is an American adaptation of a well-reviewed Swedish film titled FORCE MAJEURE directed by Ruben Östlund. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash direct this American adaptation, and co-wrote this film along with Jesse Armstrong. That is a strong pedigree. This film most closely aligns with Faxon and Rash’s THE WAY WAY BACK, a delightful coming of age story about a teen on vacation at a beach town recovering from his parent’s divorce. This is contrasted with the mean, sharp wit of Armstrong’s television show SUCCESSION, with some of the best one-liners and insults in recent memory.

DOWNHILL has elements of each of the two camps. It’s small cast, interest in how everyday people respond to a threat to their relationships, and growing up align with Faxon and Rash. The moments were the couple start verbally jabbing each other, cursing, and dark comedy feel like the thumbprint of Armstrong. Ultimately, the co-directors’ tone wins and the film follows their path. Their kindness overtakes the darker, meaner, and perhaps more examined intricacies that were in the original film by Östlund that likely attracted Armstrong.

DOWNHILL is a two-hander between Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell. They are both up to the task. Louis-Dreyfus is especially excellent. After turns on SEINFELD and VEEP, she is probably the most decorated television comedic actress of the past few decades. She is incredible here, expertly controlling her face – her side-eyed looks across a dinner table, rage bubbling underneath the veneer of politeness, and wry sensibilities are unparalleled. It’s a decent script by the writing group, but it is propelled to new heights by her performance. Against her is Ferrell, who does well, but is less successful (though still good). To be fair, he is put in a weaker position by the scripted decisions his character makes. Billie gets the audiences backing throughout the film for the most part, but Pete keeps making mistake after mistake. Perhaps if slightly re-written or differently performed, his actions would be more believable and defensible. Ferrell plays the part as a different take on a more matured version of his character from OLD SCHOOL. He is battling recovering from the death of his father, realizing that his life is decided and without the adventures of a young post-grad, and dealing with a mistake of the moment. It’s just not as lived in as a performance as the one Louis-Dreyfus gives; he’s not bad, but he only succeeds on what the script and direction gives.

Faxon and Rash have a certain sensibility that is obvious in their work. Their efforts are kind-hearted and encouraging. This contrast against Armstrong’s writing and the surlier personality of the original film put DOWNHILL in a conflicted position. This composition may hit the mark perfectly for some. For others, they will want the film to lean in one direction or the other. For those wanting the “more mature, darker” take, they should seek out the original version by Östlund. For those who are okay with a kinder version highlighted by some good (and one great) performances, DOWNHILL hits the mark.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell make watching DOWNHILL as enjoyable as skiing down a bunny slope – fun, thoughtful, and entertaining– but you wonder if there was something better just around the corner, earning it a 7/10

DOWNHILL opens February 14, 2020

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