Downhill is a comic relationship nightmare

Throughout “Downhill,” Pete Stanton (Will Ferrell) screams his newfound mantra, “Evey day is all we have.”

On the surface, the phrase appears meaningful, emphasizing the fleeting nature of life. Screenwriter Jesse Armstrong, however, recognizes the inherent ineptitude of the phrase. Rather than serving as actual wisdom, the statement is noticeably empty, acting more as a lifestyle brand hashtag than legitimate advice.

These observations are when “Downhill” is at its best, taking an incisive look at the artificiality covering up midlife malaise. Sadly, “Downhill” doesn’t contain enough of these moments to justify its existence.

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From directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, “Downhill” tells the story of the Stantons, an upper-class family taking a ski vacation in the Alps. After the Stantons face a near-death experience, they find their lives turned upside down as they have to reevaluate their relationships with each other and their perceptions of life’s meaning. Starring Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, “Downhill” isn’t comprised of the raucous comedy either are known for. Instead, “Downhill” has more in common with the yuppie anxiety of “Marriage Story” than it does with “Step Brothers” or “Anchorman.”

As an English-language remake of the acclaimed 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure,” casting Ferrell and Dreyfuss transforms the crisis at the center of “Downhill,” creating the potential for a broader style of comedy. But, at its heart, “Downhill” is deeply committed to the serious nature of its characters’ collective plight, attempting to understand something right outside of its grasp.

Ferrell is a revelation as Pete, giving easily his best performance in a decade. Channeling the same kind of man-child persona that emanates from his best work, Ferrell taps into something surprisingly serious and dark at the center of Pete’s psyche. Dealing with the loss of his own father, Pete now finds himself at a crossroads with his own family, having to understand the implications of age and the meaning of fatherhood.

Ferrell’s career has similarly been at a dangerous crossroads for the past few years. After being one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Ferrell’s last three films, “Holmes and Watson,” “The House” and “Daddy’s Home 2” were all massive critical and box office failures. With “Downhill,” Ferrell gets to show a newfound level of control and tension in his acting style, interacting with his own persona as an aging star.

Opposite Ferrell, Dreyfuss does equally commendable work as Pete’s wife, Billie. For three decades, Dreyfuss has been a constant in the comedy world primarily because of her consistent ability to convey mild displeasure and boiling rage. As Billie, these talents are underscored by serious stakes, which match the level of Dreyfus’ anger.

In the best scene of the film, Dreyfus and Ferrell’s capacities for comic discomfort and shockingly convincing fury collide as they war over whose version of events is true. The scene beautifully moves between hilarity and despair as helpless bystanders Rosie (Zoe Chao) and Zach (Zach Woods) have nothing to do but cringe at the anger of these two opposing forces.

Yet, “Downhill” can never quite reach those heights in any other portion of the film. Instead, the film comes off as uneven, wanting to communicate these fears and anxieties while still grasping for broad laughs. Miranda Otto, in particular, grinds the film to a halt each time she appears as the sex-crazed concierge, Charlotte. Charlotte’s character — while attempting to serve as a mirror image to Billie’s repressed nature — comes across as blatant, desperate comic relief failing for laughs by relentlessly repeating the same hackneyed sexual comedy in every scene.

Part of this inconsistency in tone may come from Armstrong’s script. As the showrunner of HBO’s “Succession,” Armstrong has made his name off simultaneously navigating the depths of existential crises and heights of situational comedy. With “Downhill,” Armstrong can’t find the necessary balance to succeed.

That isn’t to say Armstrong’s script lacks intelligence. At times, “Downhill” is able to tap into the depth it’s looking for, feeling like a more self-aware version of “American Beauty.” Rather than valorizing Pete’s eschewing of societal convention, Armstrong holds him accountable for his decisions, displaying the sadness of denying age or commitment.

Despite any issues, “Downhill” is still a worthwhile endeavor, if only for Dreyfus’ and Ferrell’s performances. As both of them embark on a new phase of their career, “Downhill” is further proof that they don’t have to be pigeonholed by bland studio comedy and should be allowed to explore more dramatic work. Given the mixed critical reaction to “Downhill,” hopefully neither of them will be discouraged from taking on similar projects in the future.

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