Two comedy pros bring laughter and honesty to this solid tale of a marriage at a crossroads.
Sitting at the press screening for the new dramedy, Downhill, the fact that I was about to watch a remake of an earlier film wasn’t lost on me. I haven’t seen the film that Downhill is based on (excuse me, inspired by), but it seemed that everyone else in that theater had. All around me I could hear people commenting on how much they loved the movie’s original counterpart and, even though they didn’t say it, had already made up their minds that they weren’t going to embrace this new version. While I understand that it’s virtually impossible to not carry a fondness for a film which connected with you as a newer version is about to play, it is important to remember that every movie, regardless of its origins, deserves a chance to plead its case. Those allowing Downhill to do just that will find themselves treated to the first great comedy of the year featuring two pros at the top of their game.
In Downhill, the happily-married Billie (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and Pete (Will Ferrell) have embarked on a family vacation in the Swiss alps with their two teenage sons (Ammon Jacob Ford and Julian Grey). Shortly after the beginning of their stay, an avalanche strikes, coming dangerously close to the outdoor restaurant the family is having lunch at. Thinking they are about to die, Billie holds onto her children as she notices Pete grab his phone and start to run in the opposite direction. The incident leaves a mark on the vacation and causes the couple to reevaluate their marriage.
Downhill is so rich with an assortment of side-splitting comedic moments that thrive on the kind of true to life awkwardness which would arise from a premise such as this. Most of the laughs come courtesy of Ferrell trying to downplay the event in question as much as he can, usually by overcompensating with his family any chance he gets. One such attempt involves a mini bobsled ride which ends with Pete ramming his sled into the back of his son’s, causing the latter to scream and panic just as the ride’s camera captures the moment. Meanwhile, Billie earns her laughs in the way she tries to not let what her husband did upset her by putting on an exterior as a way of trying with all her might to wrap her head around her husband’s surprising reaction. Yet the way she recounts the event to each person she and Pete meet gradually (and hilariously) brings out the anger she carries with her. Making things all the more humorous (albeit in a roundabout way) is the presence of the couple’s sons who, even though they appear more concerned with “screen time,” function as a Greek chorus of sorts for Billie and Pete and the biggest reminders of the event that has thrown their marriage into an unexpected tailspin.
As funny as Downhill is, it doesn’t use it’s comedy to shortchange the heart of the emotional conflict its main characters find themselves in. To call the movie a drama in the traditional sense would be just a tad misleading, but there is a definite comment on what happens when push comes to shove in a longtime union between two people. The incident with the avalanche may have been brief, but it’s caused Bille and Pete to question the strength of the marriage they thought they spent years building. Billie now finds herself wondering just how much Pete is committed to her, while Pete is trying to comprehend why he instinctively reacted the way he did. Downhill’s script has its characters pondering these thoughts for a good stretch of time following the event, and to watch the pair wrestle with them as they try to pretend that everything is just as fine as it was before, makes for some very telling dynamics. Eventually, the characters let their feelings out and with them come the fears and frustrations they didn’t expect to have to face. Watching as each one gets their own cathartic moment is just as intoxicating as any laugh in the movie thanks to the way the script looks at the couple as two people who are genuinely unsure and afraid of what their marriage has become.
I don’t know why it took so long to get Dreyfuss and Ferrell in a movie together, but I’m sure glad it happened. The two Saturday Night Live alums who struck out on their own and made names for themselves in the world of comedy do some truly surprising work here. Ferrell seems to have found the right balance between the broadness he’s so good at and the nuance he’s proven so capable of in past efforts such as Stranger than Fiction and Everything Must Go. In his hands, you don’t hate Pete. Instead, you see him continuously trying to prove to his family and himself that that one moment doesn’t define him. Besides her role in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, Dreyfuss’s film career hasn’t really resonated with audiences, leading to long gaps of inactivity in the medium. Hopefully those who see Downhill will recognize this is a mistake and give her the kind of roles on screen which both call for her to be her naturally hilarious self and reach deep into the heart of the woman she’s playing the way she does here. Apart from the two, the only other cast member who scores in Downhill is an uproarious Miranda Otto, who turns up as a sex-hungry concierge delivering one jaw-dropping line after another and nailing every single one of them.
My one sole criticism with Downhill might seem minor, but does in fact have a purpose. As good a movie as this is, it cannot help but feel lacking where exposition is concerned. It’s a common problem for some films to pack in too much, but in the case of Downhill it’s more than needed in order to better understand Billie and Pete, their marriage and why what happens affects them as much as it does. Yes, our natural instincts tell us that these two people have a happy life together. However, we never get to feel it (or the emotional weight of their conflict) as much as we perhaps could have had the script given us the chance to know Pete and Billie just a little more. I tend to go a little easy on remakes for the most part. To not do so would is not only the very definition of close mindedness, but is also akin to saying that there’s only one way to tell a story; a singular interpretation of any one text. Regardless of how close it sticks to the plot of the original or not, Downhill feels like its own entity rather than an obvious copy of something which came before thanks to how it manages laughter and conflict in the most honest and effective way it knows how.