Review: Downhill (2020)

Downhill. Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Searchlight Pictures, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

            Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s sophomore feature, Downhill, has already caused a bit of a stir with early audiences (see the IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes user reviews). Normally, I don’t like to check out advanced reviews before I have the opportunity to see a film; however, the audience reaction to this particular movie was odd enough that I did take a look. There seem to be two primary criticisms of Downhill from online commenters. The first is that they were expecting a hilarious comedy. The second is that they argue this film does not measure up to the original, Force Majeure (2014). So, let me start by saying that I knew Downhill was not a comedy going in, and I have not seen the original Swedish film. Overall, I found Downhill to be an enjoyable, if uneven dramedy that owes its moderate success to the strength of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s performance.

Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell play Billie and Pete, respectively, a married couple who take their children on a ski trip to help Pete recover after the loss of his father. One day, during lunch, an avalanche races towards the family. Pete grabs his phone and runs away, leaving his family behind. Billie and Pete then have to reckon with what his action means for their family.

To be fair to the naysayers, the pairing of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell sounds like the perfect recipe for a laugh-out-loud Valentine’s treat. Downhill instead gives the performers the opportunity to flex their dramatic muscles. Or, perhaps, their dramedic muscles. There are certainly moments of humor, but the humor that Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell get to play with is far more subtle than most of what you’ve seen in their respective comedic repertoires. For me, that made it easier, and more enjoyable, to engage with these characters as real people, especially during the higher points of tension. In these scenes, Louis-Dreyfus, in particular, shines. During an uncomfortable get together with Pete’s coworker, Billie vocalizes, for the first time, her feelings about the incident. The awkwardness of the encounter mixed with the dramatic heights of Billie’s monologue allow Louis-Dreyfus to perfectly capture the dramedic range necessary for the film’s tone. More than most performers—and maybe more than the directors, even—she understands where the comedy and the drama come together in dramedy.

Ferrell plays his part well, too, but his character is written with a bit less dimension due to a general haze of underdevelopment that hangs over the movie. There really is not enough exploration of Pete’s character to understand some of the choices he makes—and I’m not just talking about the avalanche fleeing. His disconnectedness is just never fully realized, even though his overly dependent relationship with his phone presents plenty of opportunity. It’s not that his character didn’t work for me, it’s just that I wanted more from his perspective. I also wanted more from the children’s perspective, and we all know how I feel about child actors. The film’s brisk runtime—it clocks in under ninety minutes—actually hinders the movie’s effectiveness because it doesn’t allow for enough depth.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • Like many early viewers, Miranda Otto also thought this was supposed to be a goofy comedy, and she plays her character as such.
  • If there is one thing this movie nails, it is the power of awkward silence. I’m not sure if that was intentional or not, but it works.

The Final Tea

            There will certainly be audience members, even those who know they are going to a dramedy, who don’t quite vibe with Downhill. If you love Julia Louis-Dreyfus and find the characters relatable, you will enjoy it. If you are looking for a completely successful dramedy, though, you’re better off checking out Faxon and Rash’s first feature, The Way, Way Back (2013).

GRADE: B

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