Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell are two of the best comedic actors of the past 25 years, with Louis-Dreyfus scoring in Seinfeld and Veep, and Ferrell parlaying his Saturday Night Live success into a big movie career. But anyone expecting their first film pairing, Downhill, to be a laugh fest should temper those expectations.
A remake of the 2014 Swedish film Force Majeure, Downhill has Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell playing married couple Billie and Pete, who have brought their two sons, Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) and Finn (Julian Grey), to the Swiss Alps for a ski vacation. Things are going well until a controlled avalanche while the family is eating lunch gets a little close for comfort.
Pete’s reaction — to grab his phone and run away instead of protecting his family — creates a divide between him and Billie, a rift that gets worse the more he continues to avoid an apology. Other things, like Pete inviting his friend Zach (Zach Woods) to visit and a busybody hotel clerk (Miranda Otto), combine to escalate matters, with Billie growing more resentful and Pete digging in his heels even more.
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash and written by Faxon, Rash, and Jesse Armstrong, the film is much more of a drama than a comedy. There are certainly funny moments, and the mere presence of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell may cause people to laugh, but the story goes to some dark places. The two actors stretch their dramatic wings admirably, reveling in the discomfort of the situation instead of defusing tension with jokes.
The film is a strange choice as a Valentine’s Day release, as any couple seeing it for date night may find themselves questioning how invested their partner is in their relationship. It also has to compete with those who know and love the original Swedish film. The practice of watering down an acclaimed international film has a long history, and filmgoers have a right to be skeptical.
But Faxon, Rash, Louis-Dreyfus, and Ferrell make it their own, providing uniquely American moments that enhance instead of detract from the story. While they don’t go together as a couple seamlessly, Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell play off each other well, and they become more believable the more the film goes along. They’re aided immensely by Otto, who steals the movie every time she’s on screen in a hilariously over-the-top role.
Special note should also be made of the on-location scenes in the film. The ski resort plays a major part in the feel of the film, and having the cast actually on the slopes or just framed against the snow-covered mountains does wonders. You may not want to have the personal experience of Billie and Pete in this movie, but you’ll want to be at the resort.
Downhill is not your typical American movie, and it’s all the better for it. It puts two titans of comedy into some supremely difficult situations, and the process of seeing them go through them is more rewarding than a straight-up comedy would have been.