Ski vacation film ‘Downhill’ goes exactly as the title implies

Despite a family-flick vibe, this comedy is wildly inappropriate and misses the mark for relatability and humor.

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With a 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, an even lower audience score and scathing reviews from other critics, it was difficult to keep an open mind about “Downhill” as I entered the nearly-empty theater at Ragtag Cinema. Even so, ski movies often capture the nostalgic, campy essence of the family ski vacation, so I stayed, hopeful.

Will Ferrell, once (and arguably still) a mainstay of family-comedy films, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Seinfeld” and “Saturday Night Live” fame, are the draws for this comedy. Set at a fancy ski resort in the Swiss Alps, the movie addresses the moment when Ferrell’s character, Pete, and Louis-Dreyfus’, Billie, are forced to address conflict in their marriage due to a near-death experience with an avalanche.

As an adaptation of the 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure,” “Downhill” wants to be a lot of things: a solid American version of the original film, a story of difficulty and love within a marriage, a vacation romp, a raunchy comedy … the list goes on. Instead, it comes off as a painful, embarrassingly realistic depiction of strife within an upper-middle-class, nuclear family.

Hard-to-watch scenes included a public screaming match between Pete and Billie, a sexually-charged moment with Billie and her attractive young ski instructor and every scene involving Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a socially aggressive tour guide and companion for the family. The marital conflict is drawn out for nearly all of the 86-minute runtime, only to be resolved at the very end of the film as Pete literally carries Billie down the ski slope.

Their kids, Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford) are merely accessories to bounce arguments off of. The trailer appears to market the film as a family movie, which means the disclusion of the children is particularly disappointing. Moreover, the film shouldn’t have been marketed to families in the first place. Rated R for language and sexual content, the aggressive swearing feels out of place and strange, and Charlotte’s description of her sexual fantasies caused the theater to audibly groan.

An unexpected redeeming factor, however, was the fairly accurate representation of skiing itself. Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are adept skiers, and we get some beautiful shots of them coasting down the mountain. Plus, the family’s massive collection of coats, hats, helmets, gloves and other gear is accurate and nostalgic: skiers will recognize their mountain of insulation against the cold.

Louis-Dreyfus also tries her hardest to salvage the movie, playing up the dramatic parts of Billie’s character and beefing up the comedic value with her familiar dry wit. Opposite Ferrell, however, she’s not able to do it all. Ferrell is miscast as Pete; his jokes fall flat and his personality is crass and rude. The plot centers around his unwillingness to be there for his family, which is certainly believable: Ferrell comes across as unlikeable.

For me, the film goes “downhill” for good when Billie’s character takes a ski day alone to separate herself from her husband and ends up passionately kissing her ski instructor, Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti). As you can imagine, this seems to dramatically escalate the tension in Pete and Billie’s marriage. It would escalate, rather, if Pete ever found out about it.

The movie reaches its resolution with little acknowledgment that Billie cheated on her husband and seems to imply that all their problems are resolved at the end of the film. If this had been addressed, I might be able to believe the ending, but as it stands, “Downhill” remains disappointing.

Edited by George Frey | gfrey@themaneater.com

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