Review: Downhill (Sundance 2020)

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

PLOT: A family’s ski vacation to the Alps turns disastrous when the father (Will Ferrell) has a cowardly moment he’s unable to fess up to, much to his wife’s (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) chagrin.

REVIEW: American remakes of European movies tend to be a mixed bag at best, especially when turned into studio films with big stars, so when one at least tries to do something interesting with the premise being borrowed, it’s worth being celebrated even if the result is highly uneven. DOWNHILL takes the basic premise of Ruben Östlund’s FORCE MAJEURE, along with a few of the more memorable setpieces, but goes off in its direction in a way that doesn’t necessarily improve upon the original but is different enough to make it stand on its own.

Obviously, when you cast Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, you’re going to get a more straightforwardly comic film than the blackly funny original, but both are allowed to stretch. Both play relatively close to type but neither does schtick, and directors Nat Faxton and Jim Rash (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jesse Armstrong) give the film a more acidic edge than the original had to some extent. The big setup happens early-on, where, as they’re having lunch, it briefly looks like the family is going to get wiped out by an avalanche. The mom instinctually protects her kids while the dad runs for his life (to make matters worse, he stops to grab his smartphone). Both parents are shown to handle the incident in horrible ways that are initially played for laughs but eventually reveal a dark schism in the relationship that’s handled fairly seriously.

DOWNHILL says some interesting things about masculinity, in that the dad is accused by one female character of being a “pussy”, in that he ran for his life, while his wife resents that he failed to instinctually protect them, leading him to try and prove how macho he is by acting out in dumb ways. Interestingly, Rash and Faxton cast Will Ferrell in the part, which makes him a more sensitive, less traditionally macho type than the patriarch in the original, but his crisis as a family man who failed to protect his loved ones is handled in a sophisticated way. He’s not just a goofball as you might think by them casting Ferrell.

Julia Louis dreyfus Will Ferrell downhillThat said, Dreyfus has the juiciest, most complicated role as you can tell she’s struggling with the fact that, intellectually, she knows she shouldn’t let a moment of cowardice define their relationship, even if instinctually it makes her loathe him to a certain extent. There’s a brutal scene later on when she involves the kids in an argument that’s harsher than anything in the original.

Ferrell and Dreyfus play off each other well, with Ferrell showing an angrier side than he ever has before, while Dreyfus has to juggle the character’s edge with a softer side that still sympathizes with her husband even if she’s treating him fairly cruelly – not that he handles it any better.

Where DOWNHILL falters though is in the sillier bits. In the original, it was a European family on vacation, and here they try to mine laughs out of the fact that these conservative Americans are shocked by the loser European values, with Miranda Otto’s character more of a stereotypical horny European. Even worse in an amorous Italian ski instructor that a disappointing stock character plucked out of any number of goofy comedies.

Running eighty-five minutes, the film also feels like it’s spinning its wheels a little too much in the second act before a strong finale. The supporting cast is given little to do, with Kristofer Hivju having little more than a cameo, although Zach Woods is very effective as a work friend of Ferrell’s who shows up in the midst of the drama. However, Rash and Faxton deserve credit for making a pretty good looking comedy, with gorgeous location photography by Danny Cohen that’s a big cut above most movies of the genre. It’s been made for the big screen, and it’s rare you see a comedy so carefully crafted visually.

While definitely a mixed bag, DOWNHILL is a decent Americanized version of FORCE MAJEURE a probably better than anyone would have reasonably expected even if it’s not nearly as good as the original. It’s a solid showcase for Ferrell and especially Dreyfus, and I’m sure folks who haven’t seen the original will find this fairly provocative for a mainstream comedy.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.