Downhill is Cringey Dramedy Done Well

The 2020 February comedy starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus did a few things wrong but I feel like they snowballed into an avalanche of unfair criticism. See what I did there? And then what I did there by saying “See what I did there?” Both were quite clever given the subject matter. So I feel like this particular review is off to a decent start. But lets not focus on me. This is about the movie. Let’s deal with that bit then, shall we? To be perfectly honest I think one of the worst things about the film was no fault of the movie itself but it’s release date. This movie was released on Valentine’s Day. After watching it, I don’t know that I could think of a worse opening weekend for this film unless there was a weekend that was noteworthy for a particularly horrific avalanche that killed a lot of skiers on vacation. If that weekend exists, then that one might have been worse. But as I’m not aware of that being an kind of observed or notable event in any kind of history, recent or otherwise, I think Valentine’s Day weekend was a tragically misguided time to put this movie out.

I’ll back up a little bit so that I can establish a stance here so you know where I’m coming from. I own 33 Will Ferrell movies. That includes not only this flick, Downhill, but also “Holmes and Watson” and “The House” which were received poorly both critically and financially. I’ve loved just about everything he’s done since he joined SNL in 1995 and beyond. It pains me greatly to think that we may be in the last days of Will Ferrell’s prominence as an actor. He won’t disappear by any means, I don’t believe. But the idea of a film that is bolstered by his stardom is hard to envision at this point. I know there’s a Will Ferrell/Ryan Reynolds “A Christmas Carol” musical adaptation in the works, which I would LOVE, but I’m still wary of how much it will revitalize a Ferrell comeback at this point. While I can’t say my fandom for Julia Louis-Dreyfus runs necessarily as deep, I have been a solid fan since her days as Elaine Benes on Seinfeld. Her career may not have been as illustrious as Ferrell’s when it comes to depth and breadth but she’s been a reliable character actor for decades now. Both of these highly capable actors have fairly solid track records and are known for a serious comedic prowess. But that fact may just be strike two for “Downhill”.

In addition to the poorly assigned release date, there are two relatively heavy hitters, even not in their prime, at the top of the bill for this flick. Partnered with the way the trailer really made the movie seem like it was supposed to be, the expectation for significant comedy was definitely front and center. In fact, I just went and re-watched the trailer and the film reads very much like a quirky, off-beat, nearly Griswoldian sort of misadventure. But I can definitely say that several of the more emotionally heavy scenes were played for laughs in the trailer and the “jokes” peppered in throughout the film were front and center in the packaging of that 2 minute clip. So a Wes Anderson sort of family disaster set against the cowardice of a man who leaves his family in the middle of a terrifying controlled avalanche may read for a fun night at the theater for a Valentine’s treat but the reality of what you get is far from that by the time the credits roll. And competing against the cautiously optimistic “Sonic the Hedgehog” and much less advertised romantic drama “The Photograph” with Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, “Downhill” seems like it should have been the clear winner for the weekend. I can easily see why the subverted expectations really hurt this film though. But since I’ve told you why I understand how this film did as poorly as it did, let me now tell you why I really shouldn’t have at all.

I’ll be candid enough to assure that this is not necessarily a hidden diamond in the rough. I call it cringey dramedy because it is precisely that. There are a number of times in the film where you want to look away but at only 87 minutes worth of run time (somehow generously rounding up from the actual 86 minutes and 15 seconds) it seems like looking away would be doing yourself a considerable disservice somehow. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash are faces I’m sure you’ve seen and maybe even names you recognize. If I were a betting man, however, I’d assume you probably didn’t know them for the works they are specifically responsible for. While they both have a bevy of bit part credits you could roll through and recognize something they’ve been in, I appreciate their freshman team up in the 2013 film “The Way Way Back” which they wrote and directed as well. While I don’t think that “Downhill” hits quite as hard as their debut offering, I do still believe that they brought a lot of the same raw emotion and examination of the elusive human condition. The trailer does nail the inciting event of the film as a family of 4 is on vacation skiing in the Alps when taking a break one afternoon they are met with a planned, controlled avalanche that the family is woefully unaware of when it transpires. As the powdered tsunami encroaches on their space and particularly their safety, Drefus hunkers down with her two children and Ferrell grabs his phone and runs. While the trailer plays this for laughs, Dreyfus and her two children play this scene with tangible terror and really mark the occasion with the emotional exhaustion and tension it deserves.

What follows in the days ahead is probably far more relatable in tone and texture than being present for an avalanche. Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) is distant and frustrated with Pete (Ferrell) who desperately tries to tiptoe around the event by downplaying it when it comes up and avoiding it as often as possible. Its quite easy to see why this movie would be horrible date night fodder, let alone Valentines bait for a couple looking for a laugh. The two main characters spend the vast majority of the not quite hour and a half film finding ways to not be around each other rather than working through the ordeal and spending the time happily frolicking as a family. And while this doesn’t work well for the targeted audience, I still feel like the merits of what actually happens on screen are far more commonplace than the notion of a happy couple on vacation in the Alps with their teenage sons. As humans we make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are amplified by the severity of the consequences, real or implied. When we find ourselves in a situation like this we can trudge through and deal with them or we can watch the distance build as resolution seems further and further away. While many people prefer to watch movies for the fantastic alternate realities that they provide and how that can be an escape from our own mundane situations, I’ve often sincerely enjoyed the introspective look we can get at our own lives through the lens of others going through similar events. So a film like Downhill has a lot of promise to me in how even the most dire of circumstances can still be redeemed and that though we prefer to see things as black and white in certain situations, a bit of clarity might allow us the point of view that what we thought was absolute may have many more shades of grey than we had initially observed. At it’s heart, that’s the message behind this movie and very well executed, even down to the final scene of the film.

“It was released at a horrible time, billed as one type of film and executed in a wildly different fashion and they utilized two big-ish names that might not have quite as much star power as they once did.”

So we have an inciting event and we have a lesson learned. That gives us a starting point and an end point, but how do we traverse these two poles. Thats where Ferrell and Dreyfus come in to the picture. Accompanied by Zach Woods who plays a much younger business associate of Ferrell’s aptly named “Zach” who is haphazardly trekking across Europe with his new girlfriend “Rosie”, played by Zoe Chao, and a brief cameo from Kristofer Hivju, who Game of Thones fans would recognize as the unmistakable Tormund Giantsbane, the cast is filled with unknowns. Even the couple’s teenage sons aren’t names you’d recognize of faces you’d be able to place. So the weight of this film falls squarely on Ferrell and Dreyfus. I do believe that both of them handle it quite well. There’s a solid tension between the two of them that erupts at one point and is handled extremely poorly. But that’s how real fights happen. They are organic and ugly and often mishandled. I didn’t feel like the way this was organized and executed was done with anything other than intention to make the melee feel authentically unsettling, hence cringey dramedy. The problem stems back to the fact that you would assume that Will Ferrell is going to be over the top and Dreyfus would reprise some seasoned interpretation of her Christmas Vacation “Margo” character. But the fights and the distance aren’t played for laughs. At least not necessarily in the way you might assume. Both characters have the opportunity to have a “solo day” of sorts and this panders to that idea of what life might be life if you were unencumbered once again. Many times, films like this can glorify this idea of “if only…” as an option. Even in putting expectations on a partner. But ultimately I felt like this film did a great job of highlighting the fleeting nature of playing the comparison game, even against your own life from the past or a future filled with lofty illusions of grandeur. Ferrell spouts the line “Every day is all we have.” as a reminder from his recently (8 months prior) deceased father. While it seems a little cliche or inspirational poster-ish in it’s simplicity, there is a particular application to the idea of carpe diem in a sense that we just live today as today. We don’t compare it to yesterday or last year or back in college. We don’t look at what others are doing with their day and evaluate how ours is going according to someone else’s. We don’t live life for Instagram or hashtags. We just accept that we have this time in front of us and we what we do with it is ultimately up to us. Now, I’m not saying that in the short little span of this film that there was some life changing message shared or a moment had, but a reminder of celebrating the day we have, regardless of the situation and with no comparison to an outside force, there is a power in it’s succinctness that is unmistakable and quite pertinent in the times we find ourselves.

Lastly I’ll comment on the direction of the film. I found the visuals to be solid partners to the tone of what was going on in the film. I liked that in the first evening as they were newly at their destination and that fun quality of all that lays ahead of them was present that the feeling between Ferrell and Dreyfus was the same. In the bathroom, which had two sinks on either side of a mirror, they shared one side. That was a strong visual tent pole. As the tension built, we returned to this visual a number of times to note the growing distance between the two of them as every iteration afterwards had them on opposite sides of the mirror. Even giving way to the idea that while they are both looking at the same mirror, their vantage points go from joined to separated. There were other little cues here and there that helped bridge the story to the sight qualities of the film. I won’t say there was anything particular that stood out with the audio quality of the film. The music catered mostly to the locale of the setting. I would say that the final conversation between Billie and Rosie as they shared a ski lift to the top of the mountain, paired with the final moments of the film really enhanced the message quite well. That’s probably some of the best directional qualities I can speak on when it comes to technical execution. It was a very cleanly made, nicely filmed production. Even though I dog on the run time a bit, it is nice to see a film with a point that doesn’t necessarily have to take well over two hours to really drive home a point. So I’ll even give them brownie points for that.

All in all, I think the movie “Downhill” is a victim of it’s own circumstances. It was released at a horrible time, billed as one type of film and executed in a wildly different fashion and they utilized two big-ish names that might not have quite as much star power as they once did. But despite its shortcomings, I found this film to be quite enjoyable and very redemptive in the quality of the message in the end. It was released early for home viewing due to the ongoing quarantine we are all under. With an IMDb score of 4.8 and some rather dismal Rotten Tomatoes numbers I was skeptical about even attempting it. However, I had a credit on my Vudu account and with the initial price point of the film at $9.99, it was a steal to me at $5. I understand that’s not going to be everyone’s experience and I wouldn’t imagine that many people are clamoring to add this one to the collection. I understand. But I will say that dismissing this movie entirely does feel like a misstep. When it shows up inevitably on a streaming service, I would solidly recommend a watch as long as your expectations are in line. Its not a standard rom com. Its not a Will Ferrell comedy. There are a handful of laughs but the message of the film is far more intrinsic in the dialogue both in execution by the actors and the assembly by the writers. The emotions are real and, to be honest, somewhat out of character for what you would expect from a Ferrell or a Dreyfus. But I find that they are relatable and meaingful. So I would give this film a solid C, maybe even a B- if I were feeling particularly generous. If you watch it and hate it and think that I’m an idiot, don’t worry. Its not the first time someone has thought that about me in regards to a film I quite enjoyed. And it certainly won’t be the last. But I feel like I’ve given this one a fair shake and its criticisms, while valid in some respects, are too heavy handed in discounting this film as whole for factors beyond what the movie can offer or what it was billed as. But that’s just my take on it. Let me know what you think in the comments if you’ve seen it or you catch it after reading this. I welcome all opinions on films. I just enjoy the discussion all around. As always, I’ve been your Cinemaster to the North, Adam Peterson. And I’ll catch you on the flip side.

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