Starring Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Zack Woods
Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
One thing about getting on a ski slope — once you're on it, you keep going down and it just goes only one sure way.
Downhill is a little black comedy from left-field that's really very visually white. It takes place at a holiday resort up in the snowy Alps of Austria. And no, despite its title, it doesn't slide downhill like a bad movie.
Actually, it's pretty interesting, fairly comical and self-revealing in a Worst Family Vacation Ever sort of way. But, yes, it does feel quite downbeat overall. Simply because most of the cast, including, I think, even the cable cars, are written to act and feel kinda killjoy-down.
Think of those existentially stunted HBO painful-funny sitcoms (like Camping) in which folks try to find joy in an unpleasant outdoor trip which gets regressively worse and worse. In fact, two HBO alumni, Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) and Zach Woods (Silicon Valley), even bring their brand of hapless sad-sack comedy to good effect here.
Because right at Downhill’s self-inflicted “miserable” core, there's an uncomfortable gnawing matter that just wouldn't go away. What if Big Brave Dad, the supposed protector, provider and leader of the pack, is an embarrassing damn coward?
The initially tight Stanton family — Pete (Will Ferrell), Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and two young sons — is winging it free and easy on an activities-packed holiday in alpine Europe. Hey, it's a happy resort filled with skiing, helicopter rides, bobsled sliding and cool adventures straight out of the Winter Olympic Games.
What's there not to like, right?
Well, plenty, it seems, when disaster, or to be precise, the very first smell of disaster strikes here.
At an outdoor deck where the family is having a cosy bonding time, the explosion of a controlled avalanche goes off. I never knew there's such a thing called a “controlled avalanche”. Apparently, small avalanches are deliberately set off to pre-empt the threat of larger, more dangerous ones.
The ensuing snowslide is supposed to be harmless. But as it heads straight for the vacationers, Dad panics like a scared rabbit, grabs his handphone and runs instantly away, leaving his family behind. He comes back after this blatant act of self-preservation. Nobody dies, of course. But from here on, the visibly shocked Mum has severe and implacable WTF doubts about her chicken-livered man, the father of their children, throughout the rest of this extreme guilt trip.
Billie keeps it bottled up inside, boiling and unsaid. Pete knows she's more pissed than a raging volcano and sheepishly tries to deflect the tension with lamely enthusiastic Will Ferrell-esque mini-pep rallies and a useless catchphrase. “Every day is all we have” — he keeps spouting to no real effect.
Surely you know that in any black-com, every big thing manifests itself in little glaring ways. Billie stops holding hands, keeps to her side of their shared hotel bathroom — a recurring motif — and, gosh, dumps everybody by going on a “solo day” for an iffy ski lesson alone with a seductive young instructor. Pete, meanwhile, tries to delete his mood-killing act of desertion right out of his mind while urging his psychologically damaged brood to enjoy the terrific fun he's lined up.
She insists that he ran. He swears he was fleeing to get help as though it's a clever survival tip from Bear Grylls.
That, as far as Downhill goes, is about the long and short of it. Reflecting the patented comedic skills of the very tall Ferrell and the very short Louis-Dreyfus, a combo which saves this script from its own sense of in-built gloom.
Thing is, this is a remake of a 2014 Swedish film, Force Majeure, a relationship dramedy hailed for its dark but sharp look at the instinctive weakness of the human condition. Oh, you know about these sophisticated Euro ficks compared to their cruder American versions. They are subtler, more insightful, purposeful and usually more superior precursors.
The original was apparently inspired partly by an actual tragic calamity, the sinking of the ferry, Estonia, in Europe in 1994, where passengers fled in utter panic. Downhill, however, being a Hollywood copycat, is less profound where everything has to be shown, spelt out and conveyed literally to an American audience like a sledgehammer. Frankly, though, I kept wondering what's the big deal here about Pete's unthinking act in this unrefined Trumpian age of Me Now when it's actually hip and rewarding to be spectacularly selfish and self-centred.
But co-directors and writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, the Oscar-winning screenwriting duo for 2011’s The Descendants, at least put up a show of more than just He Claimed, She Claimed here.
The good thing is the insertion of Woods's side-with-the-hubby character, Zach, and his blame-the-dude girlfriend, Rosie (Zoe Chao), as intruders with competing perspectives into the Stantons' big fight and philosphical re-examination. Bottom line: men and women simply see the same thing very differently.
The bad thing is Miranda Otto’s free-love, sex-crazy hotel manager, Charlotte, who’s a clumsy Euro-nuts stereotype thrown in to rattle the comfort zone. “Have you had a varied life of sexual experience?” she asks Billie as she perpetuates the cure-all balm of sex to stiff-boned puritanical Yanks.
And the best thing here in Downhill is, of course, the married and harried twosome of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus. He's the master of privately humiliating disasters, like wearing a teflon coat which never works. She’s the mistress of suppressed little irritations that stick like an unpinched pimple.
Now, they're not at their insane best here. But they are still inanely stuck together in the Alps where it's cold, wet, miserable, and as one of their sons moans standing at the ski slope, “You can't even pee!”
Nobody truly wants to be here. Which means that, as far as Downhill is concerned, it has got you exactly where it wants you to be. (***)
Photo: Searchlight Pictures/Disney