Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus can't save frosty drama 'Downhill'
"Downhill" -- ★ ★
"Downhill" -- what a perfectly self-incriminating title for a comic domestic drama that wants to mash up "National Lampoon's Vacation" with Noah Baumbach's "Marriage Story," but lacks the well-timed hilarity of the former and the ruthlessly biting truth of the latter.
This Dollar Store Valentine's Day present from co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash is less of a remake, and more of a movie inspired by Ruben Ostlund's Swedish psychological thriller "Force Majeure" -- without any inspiration.
The screenplay to "Downhill" intends to be about the disintegrating marriage of American middle-class married parents Billie and Pete Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell).
Much of the movie focuses on Ferrell's Pete, an unlikable dullard who would rather text the office than interact with his wife or two sons on their family vacation in the ski slopes of Austria.
But this movie really belongs to Louis-Dreyfus' Billie, a smart, patient and matured attorney who suffers no fools, except, apparently, the one she married.
While sitting in an outdoor cafe just below the mountains, a supposedly "controlled" blast designed to spread more snow on the ski slopes creates an avalanche that hits the cafe hard and fast.
Billie instinctively uses her body to shield her sons. In the blinding whiteness, she can see Pete in a panic, deserting his family and paternal responsibilities while instinctively running to safety.
Before this scene, we already know Pete has been questioning the benefits of marriage and fatherhood.
He's been watching the continuing Instagram story posted by his young business colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) traveling childless through Europe while ingesting 'shrooms and proclaiming their freedom with hashtags such as #NoAgenda.
When Zach and Rosie finally arrive at the Stantons' ski lodge, Billie blows her cork on the bottled-up anger that has been building ever since their vacation began.
This constitutes the most potent scene in "Downhill" as Pete squeaks out feeble excuses for his cowardice under Billie's unrelenting, prosecutorial attack.
Had "Downhill" mustered this level of bald honesty more often, it might have at least paid a sincere tribute to Billie's rock-solid will to keep her family together, no matter what.
She exercises great discipline when confronted by the robustly tempting overtures of a studly Italian skiing coach (Giulio Berruti) dispatched by Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a randy, cartoony resort employee who sleeps around with guests in winter and hangs out with her farmer hubby in the summer.
Billie even goes so far as to orchestrate a selfless act to help her husband save face with his disillusioned boys, something Pete definitely doesn't earn.
Ferrell himself seems uncomfortable in his superficial portrait of Pete, a character who establishes no connections with us or his fellow cast members.
That leaves the committed performance by Louis-Dreyfus (who also produced this film) to anchor this awkwardly mounted comic drama, one neither comic enough nor dramatic enough to earn our interest or sympathies.
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Starring: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Mirando Otto, Zach Woods, Zoe Chao
Directed by: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Other: A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Rated R for language, sexual situations. 86 minutes