Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won me over as directors with The Way Way Back (2013) and with their writing on The Descendants, so I was excited to see their newest film, Downhill (2020). While I’ve never seen the film Force Majeure (2014), which this screenplay is based on, I often find Will Ferrell films to be entertaining – though I did opt out of seeing Holmes and Watson (2018), so I had high hopes that this film would be a shining comedic light from the February releases. It wasn’t that, but it did remind me of how funny and talented Julia Louis Dreyfus can be – and I think had a different co-lead been cast instead of Ferrell, the movie could have been better.
Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Ferrell) take their two children to the Alps for a family ski vacation with hopes of reconnecting with family. While waiting to order dinner, an avalanche sends Pete running, leaving Billie and the two children to fend for themselves. When the apparent disaster turns into just a snow-covered event, the aftermath leaves them at odds and in disarray as they are forced to reevaluate their lives and how they feel about each other.
Louis-Dreyfus is definitely the highlight of this film for me. The scenes that she is centered in are always the best – whether it’s an awkward ski lift ride with Charlotte (Miranda Otto), the hotel manager who insists on their friendship, her time with the ski trainer, or finally snapping at Pete. Billie is trying to take care of her kids who were terrified by the near encounter with a potentially deadly avalanche – and this is challenging because she’s also dealing with her own fears. Pair that situation with Pete essentially abandoning her and the kids, and she’s completely confused about what the status of their relationship is.
Ferrell isn’t bad in this movie, but he does feel like the wrong choice. Pete is in denial about his own actions, and keeps trying to play it off. In fact, much about his character feels half-baked. He hits his head while not wearing a helmet, and it seems like there could be some consequences to this – but there really isn’t. Pete considers cheating (or at least contemplates the possibility of it), and that really doesn’t go anywhere. However, it’s Ferrell’s inherent kindness that often emanates from his character which makes many of the choices feel silly or forced, especially when he tries to make Billie the bad guy after revealing his cowardice to his friend, Zach (Zach Woods). He just feels out of place in this role, and it may have been better with Ben Stiller or Steve Carell, who are often better at the jerk role.
Fortunately, the film is relatively short and watchable enough. I really had hoped it would be more of a laugh riot than it was. Instead, it’s just a casual chuckle here and there, accompanied by a strong appreciation for Louis-Dreyfus. Again, I like Ferrell in many films – but I just found his moments to be more annoying than comedic here. In the end, Downhill earns the Not a Total Waste of Time rating.