FILM REVIEW – DOWNHILL. With Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Miranda Otto, Zoe Chao, Zach Woods. Written by Jesse Armstrong and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Directed by Nat Faxon, Jim Rash. Rated R for language and some sexual material. 86 minutes.
Do you have a spouse or significant other you want to break up with but can’t figure out how to do it? Here’s a suggestion: go see DOWNHILL with them. The movie, opening on Valentine’s Day, is being billed as a comedy but is – in fact – a cringeworthy story of a married couple whose relationship is in a humiliating downward spiral. Running only 86 minutes, it seems to go on for hours.
Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Will Ferrell) have brought their two young boys to Austria for a skiing vacation. Pete is supposedly still getting over the death of his father and has booked them into a resort where there are no other children. They are greeted by Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a sexually liberated and totally inappropriate hotel employee. This sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
The key moment is when a “controlled avalanche” goes out of control and – for a few moments – seems to threaten the family having lunch on an outdoor deck. Billie is shaken by the experience and it’s made worse by Pete’s reaction. He runs off, seemingly leaving his family to their fate. The rest of the film makes us endure their increasingly hostile reactions to each other, including Billie forcing their sons to back up her version of the events in front of one of Pete’s business colleagues Zach (Zach Woods) and Zach’s girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao).
Based on the 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure,” this version has absolutely nothing going for it unless you enjoy watching other people ski. We get moments that include Billie attempting to masturbate in a bathroom stall and Pete getting so drunk that he’s ready to pick a fight in a bar. By contrast, the couple in the recent “Marriage Story” – in the midst of a divorce – are lovebirds.
The two leads are dreadful. Ferrell offers little of the comedy we’ve come to expect, and Louis-Dreyfus is shrill and unpleasant, as in a scene where she attempts to file a complaint about the avalanche to Austrian officials who couldn’t care less. Giulio Berruti provides some distraction as a ski instructor who Charlotte pairs with Billie, but it’s a subplot that goes nowhere.
About the only thing of note – for those who pay attention to such things – is that the opening credits play the famous “Fox Fanfare” while proclaiming this a “Searchlight Film.” That’s because Disney has acquired the 20th Century Fox film studio and will no longer have the Fox name used for movies released through that arm. This is the first movie with the newly revised logo.
There are countless movies one can share on Valentine’s Day. “Downhill” isn’t one of them.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.