Cinema Dispatch: Downhill

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Downhill and all the images you see in this review are owned by Searchlight Pictures

Directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

Let’s see… I don’t remember seeing any trailers for this, I didn’t know it was coming out until the day before I saw it, and I haven’t even seen Veep yet.  Yeah, not sure what to say about this one going into it, especially since Sonic The Hedgehog took up all my attention last weekend.  But hey, I’m sure SOMEONE out there is excited for this film, right?  It made it to Sundance!  Did SONIC make it to Sundance?  I think NOT!  Yeah okay, it’s got a good cast but Will Ferrell hasn’t been on the best of streaks lately so I’m giving this about a fifty-fifty shot at being any good.  Does it manage to beat the odds and be the surprise hit of the weekend, or will the only thing people remember about this is that it’s the film that tried to take on the Blue Furball on his opening weekend?  Let’s find out!!

Pete and Billie Staunton (Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) have taken their sons Finn and Emerson (Julian Grey and Ammon Jacob Ford) to the Alps for a family vacation which frankly Pete really needed as his father died a mere eight months ago and he’s been shaken up about it ever since.  You know how these things go however; the kids would rather just be on their screens all day, the busy schedule means everyone is tired, and all this extra effort and tension is bubbling up repressed negativity in unexpected ways.  Perhaps the MOST unexpected way though is what Pete ends up doing that puts a huge damper on things for the rest of the trip!  At one point the family is enjoying their lunch on the patio when an avalanche starts to approach, and like what any of us would do (what, you WOULDN’T do this?) Pete grabs his phone and skedaddles while Billie clings to the kids and hopes that they don’t all die in the snowfall.  They don’t of course, but darn it if Pete running away didn’t become the biggest buzzkill of this entire trip, and it calls into question quite a lot about their lives, their relationships, and where this family is headed.  Will Billie and Pete find a way to come back together after this bizarre event has torn them apart?  Will their kids be able to cope with the fact that their dad left them for dead and is barely even acknowledging this fact?  Seriously, what kind of excuse could Pete POSSIBLY come up with to explain that?  At that point you might as well just drop a smoke bomb and disappear for the rest of your life.

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“Hey, where were you guys?”     “WHAT!?”     “Yeah, I was over there waiting for you.  What, you didn’t get my text?”

Considering just how low the bar’s been for Will Ferrell movies in the last few years, this is a straight up masterpiece and a return to form for those of us who want to see more of his serious acting chops (Stranger than Fiction, Everything Must Go, The LEGO Movie, etc) than watching him yell his way through another mediocre comedy.  Even without that massive curve, I still think it’s a solid drama with some great performances, particularly from Ferrell and Dreyfus, but I left the movie feeling a bit colder than I think the filmmakers intended.  It certainly FEELS like a movie I should have had a much stronger reaction too, but it feels like there’s something missing to really drive home the points that it’s trying to make; that it’d rather meander around for a sense of authenticity than to let the emotions flow out and the consequences unfold in a powerful way.  It’s not without charm, humor, drama, sadness, and pain, but it’s perhaps a bit too muted for my taste; swinging perhaps a bit TOO far in the opposite direction of what we expect from Will Ferrell movies.

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“You know I normally would have thrown a roll at someone or screamed at a waiter to get me a pile of tater-tots, but I’m in a better place in my life right now, and all I’m interested in is club soda, skiing, and making memories with my family.”     “And leaving us to die in avalanches.”     “Geez, hold a grudge much?”

The movie calls itself a different kind of Disaster Movie which I guess is a fairly accurate description of what this movie is going for and what ultimately works about it.  We’re essentially watching a marriage implode (or go DOWNHILL as it were) in real-time during this family vacation, albeit spoon fed to us with the sugar of indie comedy quirkiness to make it go down smoother.  I didn’t see Marriage Story, but I get the feeling that this is going for something similar albeit with more levity and heart than wall punching and death wishes.  It’s got a decent amount of heart behind it and doesn’t feel as stale as many other similarly minded movies which tend to be even MORE subdued than what we get here.  Ferrell certainly isn’t screaming his head off like he was in Holmes & Watson (ugh…) and I like what he does with his character which we’ll get into more detail later on, but for the most part it’s a very indie feeling comedy with a few more (and very much appreciated) bells and whistles.

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“I still feel really bad about what happened yesterday!”     “You know what will help with that?”     “Is it shots?”     “IT’S SHOTS!!”

One of the big questions that the movie asks, and the one that stuck out the most for me, is how hard would it be to earn forgiveness either from yourself or from your loved ones if you did something REALLY terrible?  Now I’m not talking about murder or anything like that; more that you showed the absolute most craven and cowardly part of yourself under a huge spotlight, and there’s simply no taking it back or erasing the harm that it does.  That’s what Will Ferrell does in this movie, and while it may say more unflattering things about me than good things about the movie, I was kind of impressed at how the movie turned my emotions around throughout the course of the movie.  I’ll admit that for the first act or so, until the big blowup scene right in the middle, I was kind of on Will Ferrell’s side and thought that Julia Louis-Dreyfus was simply being spiteful.  Why did I think this way?  Well HOPEFULLY because the movie doe a good job of framing it that way before shifting it in a more balanced manner; otherwise I might have some issues I need to work on.  There’s a scene where she’s venting at employees of the resort and another scene where she calls off a very fun (and very expensive) experience over a glove and a skipped breakfast; none of which comes off as endearing qualities while Will Ferrell is over there putting up with it and always trying to keep a positive attitude.  Then things start to shift as Dreyfus’s inner conflict becomes more and more pronounced culminating in the scene confrontation right at the middle of the movie that peels back the layers of artifice that both have built up; revealing a hurt and confused woman on one side and an emotionally disconnected and resentful oaf on the other.  It’s really good character work from both of them with Dreyfus doing a great job of building up those walls and then convincingly bringing them down when she needs to as well as Ferrell playing one of his more quietly sinister roles as a guy who just wants to check out but can’t admit it to himself despite his family getting a full view of it during the avalanche.  It’s compelling stuff to be sure, though again something feels missing here that’s keeping me from fully investing in it.

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“Look, I’m just gonna say it-“     “Please don’t.”     “John C Reilly should have played both of our sons in this.  Do you remember how good he was a Taquito!?”     “Yes, I remember Taquito.”  Darn right you do!”

The problem with the movie is two-fold; it takes a bit too long for the movie’s intentions to be clear, and by the time that it does the movie feels like it’s ready to call it a day and just spins its wheels for the second half.  Now the former issue is most certainly one where your mileage will vary, but it definitely felt like there was supposed to be something else going on in the first half other than what we were seeing in front of us.  No joke, I was CERTAIN for like ten minutes of this movie that Will Ferrell’s character actually changed places with someone who looked just like him during the avalanche in some sort of Prince and the Pauper type scam.  Hey, it made sense to me, especially when Dreyfus was clearly becoming distant and suspicious of Ferrell, and again this is kind of silly of me, I just didn’t GET that the avalanche was a THING until the movie spelled it out.  I mean it’s a movie!  No one got hurt or killed by it, so I guess I just kind of disconnected from it as a passive observer and just didn’t get the fear and trauma that it could induce if you ACTUALLY were in the middle of it, so of course I thought that there had to be more to it than just the snow falling down; that it was a smoke screen for some GREATER TWIST that will make us all gasp in surprise!  So that was me for the first half, waiting for what was staring me right in the face until the movie slapped me upside the head and made it abundantly clear what this was.  That confrontation in the middle is so good with lots of emotional catharsis that I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what happened next!  And then… nothing of particular note I guess.  Sure there are a handful of REALLY good moments after that (especially an awkward lunch with Ferrell and his kids), but we really never reach that level of engaging catharsis again; not even with the ending which feels at least complete and a smidge satisfying, but not nearly as much as the confrontation which happened a good forty minutes prior.  The movie had my interest at first, then kind of wavered back and forth until it shoots up to a phenomenal peak, and the emotional high just fades away until we get to the end which I guess is still better than a movie that’s just a flat line, but a few more peaks would have probably made this a lot more interesting.

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Get it?  Peaks?  Eh?  Do you get it!?

Maybe I just wasn’t in the right mindset for this movie and perhaps a second viewing will straighten out some of the issues I had with it, but for the most part it’s still a rather enjoyable dramedy help up mightily by two fantastic performances.  I don’t know if I’d recommending rushing out to see it as soon as possible, but it’s been a pretty bland week so between this and Sonic (assuming you’ve already seen Birds of Prey of course), it’s kind of a tossup.  Probably best to wait for a home release so you can enjoy it nice and cozy in your own home which I feel is probably a better place for it than at the theater.  Heck, it was probably a better place for this family considering how badly this vacation turned out.  Let that be a lesson!  NEVER LEAVE THE HOUSE!  The only thing out there is avalanches, broken hearts, and the risk of serious head trauma.  Who needs it!?

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