Two of the most recognisable faces in Hollywood, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) and Will Ferrell (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy) head up this medium budget black comedy set in the Alps. The comedy legends play a married couple with their two sons on a family-bonding ski trip who find themselves in a close shave with an avalanche. Each parent responds very differently in the crisis, with Ferrell’s Pete in cowardly flight and Louis-Dreyfus’ Billie in protection mode. The event shines a harsh light on their marriage, and the rest of Downhill is about navigating the damage done to their relationship.
The intriguing premise does not belong to the American writers. Actually, the film is a pretty close adaptation of a brilliant Swedish film from 2014, Force Majeure, but a comparison of the two movies highlights the problems with Downhill. The original found a tone that was subtle and sombre, with any dark humour allowed to bubble up naturally from the situations. But Downhill grapples desperately to find its atmosphere. Louis-Dreyfus’ performance is grounded and natural, as are those of the supporting players, especially Zoe Chao and Veep alumnus Zach Woods as Pete’s friends, the smitten lovers who provide confidantes for the central couple.
But unsurprisingly, the fatal flaw here is with the misguided use of Will Ferrell. As usual, he plays the straight clown here, pathetic, goofy and naïve. And he’s in his own movie. In every close up there’s the expectation that he’s going to do something funny, even when he’s in a deadly serious scene, and it constantly undercuts the mood. While I don’t really believe that Ferrell can’t play drama (he was good in Stranger Than Fiction), it seems he was cast here with some ill-advised notion that he would provide a necessary levity for American audiences. Instead, he’s just going to confuse people.
Downhill’s directors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (both comic actors themselves) have failed to make what is an excellent script really work. The tension is constantly popped by the laughs, and obvious and pointed camera work contains none of the slow burn subtlety of the Swedish original, which patiently allowed the slow-motion familial collapse play out inexorably in front of our eyes.
There’s no glee in seeing the fall of Downhill. In fact, it’s actually encouraging to see folks like producer Louis-Dreyfus trying on material like this – quiet, off-the-beaten-track. It’s just a pity that it hasn’t worked.
Downhill is in cinemas now.