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Updated: Mar 20, 2020

Expectations get caught in an avalanche and slide away with the so-called comedy Downhill. Instead of the broad, character-driven laughs stars Julia Louis Dreyfus and Will Ferrell usually provide, Downhill aims for mild chuckles caused by an uncomfortable situation. The conundrum falls when an avalanche tumbles towards a vacationing family and dad runs away in fear, leaving his wife and kids behind. Sound funny? No? Well, that explains Downhill’s major problem: the cast cries comedy, but the basic setup lacks humor.

On the other hand, the premise provides good opportunity for irony and insight, the kind where absurdity generates a few laughs along with some on-target dialogue about human nature. Why, that almost sounds like a foreign film. And yes, Downhill springs from the twenty-fourteen best foreign language Oscar nominee, a Swedish movie called Force Mejeure. Knowing Downhill’s background as an international offering might help reduce disappointments about the story’s lack of slapstick belly laughs.

Realizing those esoteric and artistic roots makes it easier to focus on the project’s positive points, most of which come through an emotionally sound performance by Louis-Dreyfus as a woman turned around by her husband’s unexpected and disappointing behavior. She plays that shock seriously—rightfully so—and her scenes ring with sound resonance. Her character serves as the movie’s heart, and she gives the role full justice.

Unfortunately, Downhill’s other elements work less effectively. While Ferrell handles dramatic moments well enough, his persona as a man-child from movies like Elf undermines surprise at his immature behavior. And while the source material’s original strong conflict remains, Downhill’s writers search for laughs by padding their script with cliched ideas that feel like underdeveloped skits written for half a dozen sitcoms. It feels like one of those brainstorming sessions where someone says, “Will makes a funny drunk, let’s put in a scene where he drinks too much.”

Overall, the writing team maintains some effective elements from their top-notch source but never fully meld mildly funny moments with the truly thorny issue that jumpstarts the story. That proves no surprise since transforming a meditative movie like Force Mejeureinto a comedy always seemed like an uphill battle.

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