Some couples re-examine their marriages in therapy or divorce court, but the couple in “Downhill” do it in an avalanche.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell star in a comedy/drama inspired by the Swedish “Force Majeure,” in which a family on a ski vacation is relaxing outdoors when a wall of snow crashes over them. In both films, the husband panics, deserting his wife and two children, which leads to difficult questions about his commitment to them. (“Game of Thrones” actor Kristofer Hivju is in both movies, although in different roles.) The unsettling “Force Majeure” never allowed us to get our bearings as we tried to parse the characters’ behavior. But “Downhill” is much more straightforwardly about a woman who needs a disaster to wake up to the fact that her husband — who booked his family into a singles resort and is constantly on his phone, coveting his friends’ lives — may have checked out.
The casting of Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell is a double-edged sword. Our familiarity with their comic work is helpful because it encourages us to find the humor in their characters’ travails. (And it may help smooth over the fact that they, like all but one person in the movie, are white, straight, rich and annoying.) But that also creates misleading expectations. “Downhill” has its funny moments, many of them provided by Miranda Otto’s swing-for-the-fences performance as an Austrian sexpot with no boundaries, but much of it is painful and discomfiting.
Writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash won an Oscar for the emotionally ambivalent “The Descendants,” and they’re in similar territory here, albeit in the Austrian Alps instead of Hawaii. They’ve made smart directing choices, such as the way scenes of the couple brushing their teeth reveal them pulling away from each other and the way the family’s response to their daily 7 a.m. alarm reveals their fractures. And they’ve gotten smart, subdued performances from both stars. But in streamlining the story to a tight 86 minutes, they’ve also made it less interesting (and abandoned Otto’s character completely).
If we spend the whole movie debating what we’d do in a life-threatening situation, hoping that our best instincts would kick in but not sure they would, that’s a fascinating and dramatic place to be. But morality is presented as a black-and-white affair in “Downhill,” and it’s difficult to empathize with this family of privileged creeps. By giving them a ton of money and literally no back story, Faxon and Rash sharpened the focus of “Downhill” to a series of events over a couple of days, but they removed what could make this story feel real and relatable.
Watching these people bicker in snazzy ski suits as they wait for a helicopter ride to the top of an alp, you may find yourself thinking, “At the base of that mountaintop there are people worrying about real problems. I wonder what their stories are.”