2020 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The stars were out Sunday night for the Sundance Premiere of “Downhill” from directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash.
Remade from “Force Majeure,” Ruben Östlund’s 2014 Swedish film, “Downhill” follows the Staunton family as they arrive at a posh ski resort in the French Alps for a week of family bonding. On their first day, a controlled avalanche disrupts their vacation as the event reveals a rift between Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and Peter (Will Ferrell).
There are a lot of things to admire about “Downhill,” a film that could easily have run off course. A lot of the story stays close to the source material, though reconstructing the narrative around an American family naturally changes the dynamics.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus is perfect as Billie, an attorney who is constantly dismissed and overlooked by Peter. Louis-Dreyfus beautifully conveys Billie’s quiet desperation as she struggles to be heard and seen. As the days go on and the chasm between husband and wife grows, she fights to keep it together. When she finally loses her temper, the catharsis she should feel is overshadowed by the fact that their two young sons are caught in the middle and her husband still doesn’t get it.
It’s been a long time since Will Ferrell has had a good role in a good film. As Peter, he is much more subdued than the loud and crazy characters of his past. He has a few moments of physical comedy and some really funny scenes, but Peter is a quieter character than we are used to from such work as “Step Brothers” or “Zoolander.” This more dramatic side of Ferrell is a nice change, though not always effective. Sometimes it’s unclear whether we are supposed to be laughing or not.
Peter’s character has a few issues, but most of them are the fault of a script that doesn’t do enough to explore who he is. He is some kind of businessman. Presumably a successful one since he is on vacation in the Alps. But as for the type of business he does or his role in the company is entirely unclear. All we really know is that he is still mourning the death of his father eight months prior.
The script really doesn’t give us much about any of the characters, or what their life is like back at home. The two sons, Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) are never called anything besides “the boys” or “he,” have no distinct personalities, and are essentially carry on luggage for their parents’ trip. They pop into scenes when it is necessary to the plot, such as when Billie declares a Me Day and sends Peter off with the boys to the family resort further down the mountain, or when Peter’s expensive heli-skiing adventure is jeopardized because one of the kids can’t find his glove.
There are some poetic moments too. At first, Peter and Billie share one sink, even though the bathroom has two. They move in harmony, anticipating each other’s needs in the way couples do when they’ve been together longer than they were apart. When the avalanche happens and Billie shelters their sons while Peter grabs his phone and runs away, she is faced with the realization that they aren’t in sync at all and she finds herself reevaluating their lives together. This is poignantly depicted a day later when Billie is getting ready for and Peter comes in, looking for the toothpaste. She makes him use the other sink, which is not beside her, but facing her with a mirror in between. The couple, unable to talk, face each other, but can only see themselves.
The supporting players, like the boys, pop in and out of the story when needed. Although they are given more development. Miranda Otto is Charlotte, an overly enthusiastic concierge who boasts about her affairs and encourages Billie to let her hair down. She’s a quirky and funny character who breezes in and out of scenes like a whirlwind. Zach Woods and Zoe Chao show up as Zach, a colleague of Peter’s, and his girlfriend Rosie. They’ve been traveling through Europe, speaking hashtags out loud, and proclaiming their desire to live life to the fullest. Like most everyone else, they are accessories without any real substance, but they further accentuate the divide between Peter and Billie as Peter sees in them all the things he wishes he could do and Billie sees all the things she’s glad she isn’t.
There are a few misfires, and fans of “Force Majeure” are sure to feel this is a little too close to the source material to justify its existence. But as a snapshot of a tested relationship, “Downhill” gets more right than wrong.