Downhill seemed brilliant conceptually, but ultimately fails on execution.

A Downhill dream cast leads a lineup of terrific actors including Will Ferrell (Pete), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Billie), Miranda Otto, Zach Woods (who just seems to be in everything), Zoë Chao, and directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. What you expect with such a talented roster is to laugh a lot, maybe be moved a bit, but ultimately to be entertained.

Faxon and Rash are usually hilarious in their projects and only add to the excitement as first-time partner directors of the film. The highly anticipated duo of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus (who also executive produces Downhill) working together for the first time just seems like icing on the cake.

Based on the critical darling, Swedish film Force Majeure, Downhill has all the hallmarks of a comedy masterpiece. But instead, we get a movie that feels completely unsure of itself. It starts out promising, with a couple played by Will Ferrell slapsticking through an awkward ski photo shoot with their sons, played by Ammond Ford and Julian Grey. Pete is trying to connect with his colleague, Zach (Zach) and Rosie (Chao), a younger couple who define their relationship Instagram-style, festooned with the hashtag, #noagenda. As annoying as that is, it seems ripe for comedy.

Louis-Dreyfus gets in some funny digs at the couple’s #noagenda philosophy, but really these types of moments are too infrequent to make up for the sparse characterization of the roles.
Pete and Billie have dragged their two sons to the Austrian Alps, for what seems like a perfect, picturesque ski vacation.

It all goes wrong once what looks like a dangerous avalanche comes crashing towards their lunch spot outdoors. While Billie protectively cradles the boys from the impact, Pete takes off for his own safety inside, prompting a philosophical deconstruction debate of their family dynamic.

As much as I adore Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfuss in mostly anything, their lack of chemistry makes you wonder why they would have gotten married in the first place. Louis-Dreyfuss really does the emotional heavy lifting of the film, but that’s also part of the problem. Since her emotions are hitting against the blank wall of Will Ferrell in Downhill, in a thinly sketched out character, Louis-Dreyfuss also comes across as abrasive and unlikeable at times as well. In all honesty, halfway through the film you really just hope the two conclude to divorce and end the drama early.

The one breath of fresh air in Downhill occurs in the cameo scene with wonderful Kristofer Hivju (Game of Thrones), who played Zach Woods’ character in Force Majeure, but is cast in a small guest part here. However, he is hilarious in his one scene, and you almost wish there was more of that kind of comedic energy in the film.

Downhill is not a comedy, although it seems like it would be, and has great potential for it, but it’s a serious analogy of a marriage that has issues before they even hit the slopes. Ferrell is dealing with the loss of his father, but never rises to the occasion. A dinner with the young couple of Rosie and Zach has moments of great potential, but gets cut off at the knees by failing to capitalize on this intriguing scene.

It’s a shame this is the first pairing of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfuss in a film. But really, the two actors suit different types of comedy, if you think about it. Dreyfuss can do dark comedy, which perhaps Downhill was mean to be, but Ferrell works best in light comedy that relies on greater physicality. It’s almost as if the two are playing in two separate films.

Downhill‘s conclusion is abrupt and too easily wrapped up after such a grating destruction of a couple’s relationship.

Author: Lawrence Lease

Lawrence Lease is a freelance writer and screenwriter. His work can be seen on Blasting News, Cinema Gold and The Washington Ledger.