Downhill is one of the first movies ever to be released under the newly-branded Searchlight Pictures, and in some ways it might represent what Disney has in mind for many of its future films to come under the previously-named Fox Searchlight. It’s a broad comedy with some dark ideas on its mind, but the real question is whether or not it’s funny or smart enough for audiences to pay attention.
The cast certainly does a lot of heavy lifting on both fronts. Julia Louis-Dreyfus (a co-producer) and Will Ferrell star as Billie and Pete, a married couple who have taken their two young boys Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob) on a European skiing vacation. At first glance, they’re a seemingly normal family, but Pete has issues with being present around everyone else. He’s always looking at his phone and appears to be stumbling around a familiar midlife crisis.
This anxiety culminates when the family thinks they’re about to die from an avalanche, and rather than react by trying to save his children and wife, Pete panics and grabs his phone as he runs away from them. From there, Pete has to try and get himself out of a situation where he looks like a horrible husband and father…maybe because…he is. And as you can expect, the audience will be too many steps ahead of Pete’s character development to take him all that seriously (or humorously?)
Some of the more interesting aspects of Downhill come down to the quiet contemplation expressed by Louis-Dreyfus, as she has to internalize her husband’s gaslighting, especially when he constantly tries to minimize the situation and make her feel like everything is her fault. The film asks some surprisingly deep questions about the deals spouses make with each other in order to preserve one another’s image with their children. Is it more important to be “right” than it is to be respected by your kids?
The film is adapted from Force Majeure, a Swedish comedy that is far darker than Downhill, which is more “white comedy” than black comedy. Either way, the film has a one-size-fits-all approach to getting its laughs. So in its attempt to serve up humor everyone can enjoy, the film cuts corners on how deep it’s actually willing to go with its tone.
A few bright spots, however, are when the supporting cast gets a chance to mix things up. Miranda Otto gets a few chances to chew the scenery as the eccentric hotel clerk who has the same omnipresence as Billie Lourd’s character in last year’s Booksmart. And Zach Woods and Zoë Chao are a treasure trove of cringe comedy to the point where I’d actually prefer a spinoff focused on just them.
Ultimately, Downhill isn’t bold or risky enough to be all that bad. It’s just aggressively fine for what it is and a bit disappointing if you consider what it could have been. We’ve seen these sitcom dads before who are a bit dopey and have somehow married someone in not just a different league, but a different sport altogether. The modern dad can be portrayed as absentminded in new ways thanks to social media and our addiction to ignoring the world in front of us.
But in Downhill, Pete is easy to write as too unlikable and too selfish for us to find his story worth following for so long, which is a shame because Ferrell is working overtime here to deliver a sympathetic, yet flawed bowl of charisma with this performance. As far as comedies go when it comes to both these leading actors, however, Donwhill is ironically somewhere in the middle.
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