Before this review is started, it’s interesting to note that this will be the first Fox property with the branding removed. Instead of Fox Searchlight Pictures, it is now just Searchlight Pictures. It was very odd seeing the change because I’m so used to the normal fanfare. Alright, now onto the review.
Downhill is the story about an avalanche that nearly kills a small family. Just as the snow is about to hit, Pete (Will Ferrell) takes his phone and leaves his wife Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their small boys to their impending fate. When the snow clears and the fear stops, the family must come to terms with what happened and how Pete’s actions reflect on them going forward.
This film is based on the Swedish film Force Majeure by Ruben Östlund. I have not seen that version but have heard many good things about it, just as I have seen many great things from the directing and writing duo: Nat Faxon & Jim Rash. Their work on films like The Descendants and The Way Way Back cannot be understated, displaying a talent for being able to mix comedic elements in an overall dramatic and bad situation. They bring out the best and the worst in normal people and that talent shines here in Downhill.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrel bounce off each and are easily the best part of the story. Their on-screen chemistry is unique and engaging and both actors deliver great performances, though Julia is by far the better performer here as she is able to full reach both sides of the acting range: gut-busting funny and tear-jearkingly depressing. And I will say that this movie’s tones reflect that perfectly.
Downhill is a dramedy. There are plenty of funny moments, but the film does take more time and energy in executing its dramatic elements. There is a scene that takes place on date night that has both Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on top of their games. It’s uncomfortable to the tenth degree is so brutal as it is brilliant.
The movie’s runtime is about 1 hour and 20 minutes without any credits, so it breezes by very quickly. Most of that runtime is incredibly dialogue-based and thankfully most of the dialogue was engaging and not at all boring. Most scenes and lines had a reason for being there and almost nothing felt needless. But what I must give Downhill credit for is the overall meaning that moviegoers will take away from it. The ending is set up to play out like a romantic comedy, but instead subverts that expectation and give you a more realistic ending. By the time the credits roll, we know exactly where the story is about to go and realize that all that has happened is meant to convey the Downhill battle towards something else.
This movie is pretty good for what it is, but unfortunately, Downhill doesn’t hold up as well as The Descendants or The Way Wayback. One major issue with this film (a problem that does work for it) is that it moves too quickly. While the movie itself feels like a short week, it tends to move by moments and sometimes doesn’t even touch upon them in the next scene, or at least not in ways that should feel more meaningful. Sometimes, there are moments that feel sort of outlandish and don’t really make much sense, such as Pete drinking and Billie hooking up with the ski instructor. It’s almost as if these moments are meant to represent something bigger but they’re never fully addressed. They seem tacked on for no other reason than to make it longer.
I think that this movie could have benefitted from a slightly longer runtime. Maybe focus more on the family dynamic between Pete and his sons (who are used sparingly and mainly exist to show off how flawed of a person Pete is) as well, as Billie and her own self sense of self discovery. There are a lot of ideas that are presented here and, while they’re wrapped up nicely, I think that said ideas are primarily bare-bones to what could have been.
Two characters are also introduced halfway through: Rosie and Zach. While they are meant to represent the deeper meaning behind Pete and Billie’s character, I personally found them quite annoying whenever they were on screen. I get their point, but I really kept wishing I could move past their scenes and go back to the interesting bit between Billie and Pete.
Verdict: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
Downhill isn’t as impactful as it wants to be, nor is it as well-made as the previous movies made by Nat & Jim. But it’s still a solid and entertaining dramedy with some great performances from its leads, and perfectly sets up the film’s underlying themes. Definitely worth checking out.