Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are not afraid to put characters in awkward, uncomfortable situations. They co-wrote “The Descendants”, which was about a guy realizing that his now deceased wife was cheating on him… and he’s gotta confront the other guy. “The Way, Way Back”, which Faxon & Rash also directed, was about a shy teen dealing with first love surrounded by a bunch of adults at a kiddie water park.
Now comes “Downhill”, a remake of the 2014 French/Swedish film “Force Majeure”. A husband and wife (Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) go on a family ski vacation with their two kids. Early in their week at an Austrian resort, while having lunch, an avalanche suddenly heads towards them. One spouse runs away, while the other protects their two boys. They all survive… but how’s that conversation gonna go?
That’s the film’s “suspense”, along with figuring out exactly why someone would abandon their family in a life & death situation. For moviegoers, it’s a bit of an uphill climb to get to where you wanna be with “Downhill”, especially as Faxon & Rash throw-in several stock supporting characters: a millennial couple, a sexually-free female hostess and a hunky male ski instructor.
Longtime fans of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus may head to “Downhill” expecting big belly laughs a la “Talladega Nights” and “Seinfeld”. That’s not this film. As mainstream as the now Fox-less Searchlight Pictures may market it (including releasing the movie nationwide on Valentine’s Day), this is a small character-study dramedy without (m)any punchlines.
Louis-Dreyfus does deliver a couple of sharp quips and she has a few highly effective emotional scenes. Farrell never gets the chance to go deeper than a snow squall. And the situations his Pete and her Billie get involved in as they try to make sense of what happened are more odd and embarrassing than funny.
Still, the overriding issue is interesting enough to make you stick with “Downhill” through its brisk 86-minute runtime. Just enough of the awkwardness works. Faxon & Rash occasionally tempt us into thinking Billie and/or Pete may go down a certain trail where there’s no turning back. The dramatic scenes certainly provide the most bite. When the gloves, boots, socks and goggles come off and things get raw is when this movie has the most to say.
There’s no definitive winner or final resolution in “Downhill” — the final 20-seconds make that crystal clear. And they also make it worth putting-up with the bumps and moguls along the way.