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'Downhill' review: Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus team for smart, but uneven comedy

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "Downhill."

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in "Downhill."   Credit: Fox Searchlight/Jaap Buitendijk

PLOT A man's bravery fails him during a ski vacation with his family.

CAST Will Ferrell, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Zach Woods.

RATED R (language and suggested sexuality)

LENGTH 1:26

BOTTOM LINE Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell shine in a smart but uneven comedy.

A contemptible act of cowardice seems like an unusual subject for an American comedy, but that’s the topic at hand in “Downhill,” starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. They play Pete and Billie Stanton, a couple on a ski vacation who, in a moment of crisis, discover something they both wish were not true. Nat Faxon and Jim Rash’s remake of Ruben Östlund’s “Force Majeure,” from 2014, adds a light dusting of American wackiness to what was originally a penetrating Swedish thought-experiment, resulting in an uneven but intriguing movie that pushes its two stars slightly outside their comfort zones.

Checking into their Alpine ski lodge, the Stantons cut a familiar figure: a well-off and therefore reasonably happy pair, though their two teenage sons (Julian Grey and Ammon Ford) seem subtly attuned to hidden fault-lines. During a post-ski lunch on the patio they hear an ominous boom — the start of an avalanche that initially seems controlled but soon threatens to engulf the onlookers. Panic sets in, patrons rush to the exit, and when the clouds of snow finally dissipate into harmless powder, Billie and her children realize that Pete has fled without them.

It’s a riveting scene, virtually identical to Östlund’s original staging but graced by the comic timing of Ferrell, who saunters back in with a smile. "Wow, huh?" Pete says casually — but his family's faces tell us nothing will ever be the same.

From that high peak of discomforting comedy, "Downhill" goes, well, downhill. Louis-Dreyfus is terrific as a woman struggling to confront a ghastly truth, but the movie isn't as brave as Billie is. It keeps lightening the tone and changing the subject, bringing in the kooky character of Charlotte, a Nordic sexual hedonist (played by a very funny Miranda Otto) and a hunky ski instructor (Giulio Berruti) who gets Billie into a compromising position. How did this Stephen Crane-caliber rumination on courage and cowardice become a breezy romp about extramarital temptation? Zach Woods and Zoe Chao, as a younger couple who take opposite sides in the cold war between Pete and Billie, occasionally bring the movie's theme back to the fore.

Directors Faxon and Rash (the Oscar-winning writers of "The Descendants"), who co-wrote with Jesse Armstrong, may have bit off more than they can chew, philosophically speaking. "Downhill" deserves credit for bringing an unsettling brand of comedy to the multiplex even if, here and there, it chickens out. 

FOUR MORE

“Downhill” pairs Will Ferrell with Julia Louis-Dreyfus — the latest in his long line of classy leading ladies. Here are four more films that found Ferrell well-matched:

ELF (2003) In Jon Favreau’s Christmas-season favorite, oversized elf Ferrell and jaded Gimbels staffer Zooey Deschanel create a cozy chemistry.

BEWITCHED (2005) In this meta-comedy, Ferrell is an actor on the sitcom “Bewitched” opposite an actress who really is a witch (Nicole Kidman). Reviews were lukewarm, but the film was a $130 million success.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS: THE BALLAD OF RICKY BOBBY (2006) Near the end of this NASCAR send-up, Ferrell’s bumbling race-driver falls for his capable assistant, played by a cusp-of-fame Amy Adams.

THE OTHER GUYS (2010) Ferrell plays an accountant who constantly apologizes for his wife’s plain looks. The joke is that she’s played by Eva Mendes. -- RAFER GUZMAN

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