Downhill: Frequently Entertaining, Ultimately Underwhelming – Review

The writing, directing team of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are the minds behind one of my favorite films of 2013, The Way Way Back. Finally, after seven years, they have released their second film, a remake of the french film Force Majeure entitled Downhill. The excellent way they blended comedy and drama in their 2013 debut greatly impressed me, which is why I had been immensely anticipating their next project. Now that I’ve seen their follow-up, I can say with great confidence that it does not nearly reach the heights their debut did. Instead, with Downhill, Faxon and Rash create an often underwhelming, yet frequently entertaining, film with some big ideas.

Downhill stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, with supporting performances from Zach Woods, Zoe Chao, and Miranda Otto. It tells the story of a married couple on a ski vacation in the Alps, who are thrown into a conflict, and forced to re-evaluate their relationship after an avalanche scare strikes their resort. During the scare, Ferrell’s character, Pete, grabs his phone and runs away from his family, while his wife Billie, played by Louis-Dreyfus, stays with their children in order to protect them. The characters quickly learn they were not in real danger, and the “scare” was actually a controlled avalanche. But, after Billie, and her children, realize what Pete’s instinctual reaction was, a rift is created in the marriage.

Without a doubt the high points of this film were the performances by Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus. It is really quite shocking that even though they are two of the most celebrated comedic actors of their generations, this was their first film together. There are no signs of unfamiliarity though, in fact, they come across as actors who have appeared in dozens of films together. The relationship between their characters feels authentic and lived-in. Their chemistry, and ability to play off of one another in both the comedic and dramatic scenes, is outstanding. Given their backgrounds, one would expect them to impress in the comedic moments, however, it is their dramatic work that elevates this film. Faxon and Rash seem to have an interest in casting comedic actors in more dramatic roles. In The Way Way Back, they took one of the most likable comedic actors on the planet, Steve Carell, and cast him as a truly insolent and unlikable character. He really pulled it off though, just as the very comedically-gifted Toni Collette pulled off a fairly dramatic role in that film as well. This time around it is Ferrell and Louis-Drefyus’ turn though. Although I knew they were capable of nailing roles like this, I was still impressed to see it on screen. Ferrell especially gets to do a lot in this film, and uses some of the things that make him such a gifted comic-actor, to excel in his dramatic scenes. For example, as outspoken, loud, and brash as many of his characters in the past have been, he has always been an actor capable of getting a laugh with just a facial expression. In this film, he uses his facial expressions and non-verbal moments to effectively relay the emotions of a man in crisis, rather than to garner a laugh.

I really enjoyed the two star’s rapport with one another on screen, which is perhaps why I found the film’s biggest flaws were most present in the segments of the movie in which the two main actors were separated. Downhill feels like it’s at its most alive when Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are together on screen, going back and forth at each other. However, to its own detriment, the film separates its two main characters for a great deal of the second and third acts. The pace noticeably slows down when the two leads begin to spend more time on screen without the other. In these moments, the film loses a lot of its energy, and gets sidetracked by ideas that ultimately feel unexplored.

Another issue that hurts the overall quality of the film is the lack of characterization. In the beginning, the audience quickly learns a fair amount about this family’s dynamic as a whole, but very little about the individual family members themselves. Therefore, when Pete (Farrell) and Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) go off on their own, they make some choices that I, as an audience member, just didn’t understand. The film would have been improved by giving its audience more information about the two main characters before we see them experience life on their own. Pete and Billie have two children, and we don’t really learn much about them either. This is more forgivable though, because the film is really about the adults and not the children. However, there were moments of set up for the kids to potentially play a larger role in the story, and when they didn’t, it felt like something was missing.

As far as the supporting cast goes, Zach Woods and Zoe Chao turned in two good performances in roles that could have felt far more forgettable and unnecessary in the hands of lesser actors. However, the contrast in their relationship as a young couple with the relationship of Billie and Pete as an older couple, felt like another idea that could have been more satisfying if explored more. Miranda Otto is the actor given the most comedic moments, and while some were effective, others fell flat. At times it felt like she was in a different film than everyone else. Faxon and Rash seemed to have a more difficult time blending the comedy and drama in this story, compared to The Way Way Back, and that was most notable with Otto’s character. With that being said, most of the comedy in this film does work fairly well. There may not be many big laughs, but there are enough effective comedic moments over the course of the film to keep the audience engaged and laughing throughout.

The final moment of the film forces the audience to think and reflect on the ideas presented in the story, as well as the film’s central relationship, which I appreciated. However, the resolution as a whole feels a bit underwhelming because the main conflict of the film never felt like it was pushed far enough or inspected enough to warrant that resolution. As the film ended I found myself wishing I had seen more tension building in the lead-up to one big moment between Pete and Billie towards the end of the film. The film’s runtime is only 86 minutes long, and it does in fact feel that short. Perhaps some of my problems could have been alleviated by adding 20 minutes or so to the length of the movie.

Many of my complaints, and issues I had with this film, are born out of the fact that I had such high hopes for it, because of Faxon and Rash’s work on The Way Way Back. I still found this film to be mostly entertaining, and quite enjoyable in a few moments. There are moments of effective comedy, there are moments of compelling drama, and the two lead performances are impressive. However, as the credits rolled on Downhill, I found myself wanting more from it. Ultimately, I was underwhelmed by the film as a whole. It just had too many big ideas that it leaves not totally explored by the end.

Rating: 2.9 out of 5

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