Dan's Review: "Downhill" Explores the Lifestyles of the Rich and Pointless
Feb 14, 2020 01:25AM
By Dan Metcalf
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell in Downhill - © 2020 Searchlight.
Rated R for language and some sexual material.
Starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoë Chao, Zach Woods, Kristofer Hivju, Alex Macqueen, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford, Giulio Berruti.
Written by Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, and Jim Rash, based on “Force Majeure” by Ruben Östlund.
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
In a time when so much emphasis has been focused on the disparity between the privileged few and the “have nots,” you have to wonder if there’s any room for comedy. Yes, wealthy people have problems like anyone else, but most of their issues seem to pale in comparison with rest of us common folk who deal with income problems, family health, flooded basements, and car trouble. So, when you hear about someone’s posh vacation in the European Alps being ruined because Mom and Dad are having a midlife crisis, eyes roll with shrugs aplenty. Such is the basic theme of Downhill, a comedy(?) starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, based on Force Majeure, a 2014 Swedish drama.
Dreyfus and Ferrell star as Billie and Pete Staunton, a wealthy couple on vacation in the Austrian Alps with their two young sons. While eating lunch on a terrace at the ski resort, a controlled avalanche races down the hill toward them. Even though the terrace gets a minor dusting of snow, some of the guests disperse and run for cover. Pete panics and leaves his wife and kids to fend for themselves, as Billie and the boys cower in fear, holding each other in their arms. Later, Pete’s pal Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoë Chao) show up and have dinner with the Stauntons, during which Billie recounts their scary experience and being abandoned by Pete. The couple gets into a huge argument, leading to an awkward tension for the rest of the vacation. Billie spends some time alone and is influenced by a new European acquaintance named Charlotte (Miranda Otto) to take some private ski lessons from a hunky, young Italian. Pete also sends some male bonding time with Zach, leading to a night of drunken partying. The tension begins to wear on the kids, causing both parents to reevaluate their priorities before the vacation ends.
It should be noted the original film Force Majeure is actually a pretty solid drama. Rebranding the premise as a zany comedy with two American comedians in the lead roles was a huge mistake, not only because their performances are not funny but because Downhill misses the mark as a drama, too. Some of the dysfunctional family awkwardness plays to the comedic styles of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell at the beginning of the movie, but all of that fizzles away as the story focuses on their self-absorbed behavior. Playing up to the cliché of “ugly Americans” who make ridiculous demands of their European hosts makes Downhill even worse, like having a flashback of any number of gags from Chevy Chase’s in European Vacation.
Downhill isn’t a film that pokes fun at the expense of the wealthy. It’s an exercise in finding more ways to ignore their petty problems in first class. You’re not laughing with them, or at them, or laughing at all, for that matter. In the end, Downhill doesn’t inspire the audience to learn anything about the human condition or our relationships with each other, no matter what our financial circumstances.