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‘Downhill’ an uphill battle

February 19, 2020
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A good comedic pairing is something to cherish. When two talented and funny people are brought together onscreen for the first time, our expectations are really elevated. We can’t wait to see how their respective talents react with one another. And when the filmmakers bringing them together are acclaimed talents in their own right, well … what could go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it turns out.

So it is with “Downhill,” the new film starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Written and directed by Oscar-winning duo Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the film is a remake of the 2014 dark comedy “Force Majeure.” Unfortunately, despite the tremendous talent involved, “Downhill” goes downhill pretty fast.

This new film never manages to recreate the same delicately unsettling balance of its predecessor, resulting in a movie that is constantly at odds with itself regarding the sort of movie it wants to be. The erstwhile dramatic moments feel forced and false, while the ostensibly comedic bits come off as disingenuous and get lost in the morass. Tonally, “Downhill” never stays in its lane; it gets out over its skis, leaving its cast (and us) tumbling helplessly down the mountain.

Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, TV’s “Veep”) and Pete (Will Ferrell, “Zeroville”) are a married couple on vacation. They’ve brought their two young sons Finn (Julian Gray, “A World Away”) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford, TV’s “SEAL Team”) to an Alpine resort for what promises to be an incredible ski vacation. Despite their best efforts, however, there seems to be just a little bit of tension between them.

That tension slowly mounts as the family spends their first few days on the slopes, with Pete not-so-subtly pushing to do the things that he wants to do with little regard for the desires of his family. That selfishness is writ large when, while having lunch at an outdoor café, they are confronted by the rumbling of an avalanche. As the wall of snow bears down, Pete grabs his phone and flees, leaving Billie and the boys behind.

Tragedy? Not so much. At least, not the kind that you might think

It turns out that the avalanche was a controlled event, albeit one that got a little out of hand. Everyone is safe and unhurt – physically, at least. But that one moment – a moment that eats at Billie even as Pete tries desperately to ignore it – becomes the singular focus of the entire trip. The already-fragile dynamic between them begins to unravel as Pete refuses to acknowledge what he has done and Billie can think of nothing else.

The appearance of Pete’s co-worker Zach (Zach Woods, TV’s “Avenue 5”) and his free-spirit girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao, “Where’s You Go, Bernadette”) only exacerbates the situation; the occasional and weirdly aggressive appearances of hotel concierge Charlotte (Miranda Otto, “The Silence”) isn’t helping either.

In the end, Billie and Pete are left to deal with the realities of what has happened; each must consider what this means going forward, both to them as individuals and to the future of their family.

Sounds like a real laugh riot, huh?

On the surface, “Downhill” seems like it must be a broad comedy. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus in the lead roles, Faxon and Rash bringing their trademark quirk – you’d be forgiven for making certain assumptions. And those assumptions certainly aren’t challenged by the frankly deceptive advertising campaign associated with the film.

But those assumptions are wrong.

Nothing about “Downhill” works. For large stretches, the movie is a slog – no small feat considering that the run time comes in under 90 minutes. Yet despite that short duration, the film still feels padded, as though there simply weren’t enough story to warrant the feature treatment. And honestly – there isn’t. It is dull and largely lacking in laughs, driven by lead characters that we simply have no reason to care about.

Remaking “Force Majeure” was a weird choice to begin with, but I don’t think anyone would have anticipated a misfire like this. The fact that so many talented people have conspired to make such an uninteresting film is pretty amazing, to be honest.

The central pairing is a big part of the problem with “Downhill.” For whatever reason, the respective energies being put forth by Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell simply aren’t compatible. I will say, however, that Louis-Dreyfus actually gives a solid performance; her hurt and anger are palpable. At points, her anger straight-up radiates from the screen. Ferrell does his best to keep up, but there’s a baseline cringiness to his character that doesn’t quite click. He’s not bad, per se, but I’ve never seen him this uninteresting and unlikeable. The rest of the cast is … blah. The kids are fine, but they’re just props. Woods and Chao are talented, but they’re plot devices as well; they feel unnecessary. And Otto’s character might as well be from a completely different movie – her presence makes no sense.

It’s remarkable that a film featuring so many mountains could be so utterly flat. In the end, they may as well have titled it “Force Mineure.”

[1 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 February 2020 08:55

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