February 13, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
Culture Representation: Taking place in the Austrian Alps, “Downhill” is the story of a middle-class, middle-aged married American couple who go on a disastrous ski trip with their two teenage sons.
Culture Clash: The bickering spouses not only have conflicts with each other, but they’re also annoyed by a younger couple who wants to tag along, and they experience some uncomfortable moments with the Austrian locals.
Culture Audience: This comedy film that isn’t very funny will appeal mainly to fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, whose comedic talents are stifled in a story filled with tension and misery.
“Downhill” is a perfect word to describe the steep slide into disappointment that your expectations will take when you think about how this movie wastes the talents of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. The pacing of this film, which follows an American couple whose marriage has hit a rough patch, is like slogging through the snow-covered Austrian Alps, where the story takes place. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, “Downhill” is supposed to be inspired by the 2014 Swedish avalanche disaster comedy “Force Majeure,” but that film had loads more humorous moments and compelling dialogue than what “Downhill” has to offer.
Ferrell has been in plenty of stinker movies before, but Louis-Dreyfus usually chooses quality over quantity when it comes to the movies that she makes. She’s one of the producers of “Downhill,” so this is a rare misstep for her. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Stanton, a long-married couple who’ve reached a point in their relationship where almost everything one of them does gets on the other’s nerves. They’ve taken this ski vacation to Austria with their teenage fraternal-twin sons, Finn and Emerson (played by Julian Grey and Ammon Ford), to have some family bonding time, with a small glimmer of hope that maybe the trip will bring positive feelings back into their marriage.
Hovering somewhere near the Stantons throughout the trip is an American couple in their 20s named Zach (played by Zach Woods) and Rosie (played Zoë Chao), who have an eager-to-impress vibe to them, as they try to latch on to Pete and Billie on awkward double dates. Pete knows Zach because they’re real-estate co-workers. Billie really doesn’t like being around Rosie and Zach, but Pete is more willing to tolerate them, even though the Stantons can’t relate to Rosie and Zach’s penchant for taking psychedelic mushrooms and Instagram selfies. Unbeknownst to Billie at first, Pete has invited Zach and Rosie to hang out with them. Pete will soon find out that the younger couple will wear out their welcome, as Rosie and Zach witness all the tension in the Stantons’ marriage.
One of the first people the Stantons meet upon arriving at the ski resort is the overly effusive Charlotte (played by Miranda Ott), who acts as if she works at the resort as some sort of concierge, but as the story goes on, it’s questionable if she really works there at all. At any rate, Charlotte is the kind of person who shares too much information about her sex life with total strangers, and she expects everyone she first meets to immediately become her confidant.
She fancies herself to be quite the seductress, but she’s so crude and annoying (such as when she brags, “I can catch a dick whenever I want”), that she’s not one of those quirky characters who ends up being endearing. She’s just unpleasant to watch, and Otto (who’s usually a great actress) isn’t helping matters by trying too hard with an unconvincing Austrian accent. This is not a droll comedy with eccentric and fascinating characters, such as in Wes Anderson’s 2014 movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”
When the Stantons arrive at the resort, there are sounds of explosive rumblings off in the distance, which are ominous signs of what’s to come. That fateful moment comes when the family is outside on a café patio with several other people, and they notice that a large amount of snow is tumbling down from the mountains. As it quickly turns into an avalanche, there isn’t enough time for the café patrons to take shelter, and the avalanche goes barreling down and engulfs them.
The avalanche scene itself is very unrealistic, because the massive weight and force of all that snow would have injured and possibly killed several people. But the movie just fades to black after the avalanche hits. And then, the next scene is of the people who were on the café patio, looking dazed and getting up and brushing some of the snow off of their clothes. There’s also hardly any damage done to the café and surrounding buildings.
Billie and Pete have very different reactions to the avalanche. Billie is completely unnerved, while Pete takes it in stride and tries to enjoy the rest of the trip. In a meeting that Billie and Pete have with the resort’s manager (played by Kristofer Hivju), Billie demands that the resort make an apology for handling the disaster poorly. The manager points out that there were signs around the resort warning that there was a possibility of an avalanche. “It was handled perfectly,” the manager tells Billie, who ends up leaving the meeting in a huff, while Pete looks embarrassed over her anger.
Later, in attempt to lift Billie’s spirits, Pete arranges for everyone in the family to take a helicopter trip around the Alps. But when the time comes for them to go on the helicopter, one of the kids is missing a glove. Billie then has a mini-meltdown and refuses to get on the helicopter until the son has two gloves to wear. Pete yells that he’s paid $2,000 for the trip and he doesn’t want the money to go to waste. Billie yells back that their son’s comfort is more important and he needs to wear two gloves. The helicopter ends up leaving without them.
Push-and-pull scenes like that keep getting repeated in the movie. Pete tries to take his mind off of the avalanche and have a good time with Billie and the family. Meanwhile, Billie keeps obsessing over the avalanche and sees Pete’s post-avalanche behavior as flippant and uncaring about the family’s safety. Louis-Dreyfus tends to play neurotic characters, but Billie is a shrew who seems hell-bent on making everyone around her as miserable as she is.
One of the problems with “Downhill” (and it’s really noticeable if you see this movie with an audience) is that there are so many times when Ferrell or Louis-Dreyfus utters a line in such a way that viewers will expect it to turn into a joke. There’s a slight pause of anticipation, as if something that will make people laugh is coming next. But that humorous moment never happens in scenes where people think they’ll happen.
People aren’t expecting this movie to be a slapstick or broad comedy, but during the course of the movie, it becomes very clear that Billie and Pete really are just wretched to watch. There’s no clever satire here, as this movie expects viewers to be stuck in this repetitive hell of arguments and resentment with very unlikable people. It almost makes the tension of “Force Majeure” look like an amusement-park ride compared to the slow-moving train wreck of “Downhill.”
Searchlight Pictures will release “Downhill” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.
UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “Downhill” to March 27, 2020.