There are some faces in acting that are difficult to separate from what we know of them in the past. For example, it’s hard to watch Steve Carrell in a serious role without picturing Michael Scott from “The Office,” just as it’s a small hurdle to move past the ever-present playful connotation of Ben Stiller when he’s not acting as a comedian. In the 2020 drama “Downhill,” directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus attempt to disentangle themselves from their previous comedic personas. The ratings are certainly not great, only netting 38% on Rotten Tomatoes, but digging a little deeper, I can’t say the actors or directors are to blame. In fact, the movie itself is, in its own way, a bit of a masterpiece.
It’s pertinent to understand two things heading into the movie. The first is that it is a remake of a 2014 Swedish film, “Force Majeure,” and the second is that it is certainly not a comedy. From the moment Ferrell appears on screen, you will want to laugh at most things he says and does. His character is certainly ridiculous; he’s an adult who acts like a teenager. He’s obsessed with his phone and the social-media appearances of his peers, and his lack of maturity is clear relatively quickly. But, it’s crucial to note that it’s not supposed to be funny. His lines are part of his role, and his role is not a funny one.
Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus star as the parents of two pre-teens who take their family on a vacation to the Swiss alps. From the first minutes of the movie, there’s a nearly tangible discomfort in every scene. Throughout the film, little things seem to go wrong left and right; Louis-Dreyfus plays Billie, a relatively uptight woman who’s a stark contrast to her overly relaxed husband Pete, who seems to put his own needs first in a rather un-fatherly manner. Billie, albeit uptight, is certainly doing her job as a parent. Pete, on the other hand, is not. This is not to establish Pete as the bad guy, he simply doesn’t have his priorities straight.
As consumers, we’re used to getting what we want out of movies; we see faces like Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell and we expect a lighthearted film, perhaps a comedy with a few hurdles for the characters to get over in a humorous manner before it all wraps up at the end. We may even expect slight discomfort at the more intense parts of the movie, when things start to go wrong, but it’s usually minimal. As viewers, we also expect satisfaction.
This movie may have received low ratings from viewers because it is simply not what they expect. It’s genius in that it’s incredibly realistic, but this doesn’t make it an entirely pleasant viewing experience. Billie and Pete clash with each other in the real ways that a couple does when the seeds of doubt about their relationship have been planted; they get on each other’s nerves, they snap at each other and they look at other couples and want what they have. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s real.
In one particularly memorable scene, Pete attempts to plan an exciting activity for the family to do together, one that makes him feel as though he’s doing what the younger, adventurous couples he so desires to be like would do. But, leading up to the activity, one thing after another goes wrong: small, realistic things, like a kid losing a ski glove at the last minute and not having enough time to eat breakfast. It all adds up to a climactic scene that accurately represents all of the frustrations of being in a family and a relationship that you’re trying to salvage as it continues to go rapidly downhill.
Overall, the movie is uncomfortable, but it is incredibly real. It’s not going to be loved by most viewers, because it’s not pleasant; it’s anxiety-inducing, and it certainly isn’t an escape from reality. Instead, it shoves reality in the face of its viewers, and when you go to the movies, that’s typically the opposite of what you’re there for. But this accurate reality that Faxon and Rash have crafted, with the help of Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus, is, in its own way, a work of art. Just don’t go see it after a stressful day at work, or in the midst of any stress at all.