When I was given the assignment to review Downhill, an adaptation of the 2014 comedy Force Majeure, I felt like I had something to prove. Downhill is about a family ski vacation in the Alps; it stars Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Pete and Billie, the husband and wife. Their trip quickly unravels after Pete runs away during what turns out to be a controlled avalanche, abandoning his children and Billie in what he believes is an actual life-or-death moment. You can imagine how that goes over.
I grew up in Florida with few personal reference points for winter outdoor activities, so I watched snow-sport movies (mostly Johnny Tsunami) with a very uncritical eye. Now that I live in out west and ski often, I hoped I’d finally be able to size up the moves in this ski movie. Alas, I left Downhill with even more questions than I went in with—it seems that knowing anything about skiing makes seeing Hollywood’s version of the sport a truly distressing experience. Downhill has all the makings of a flop: it only made $5.1 million on its opening weekend (Sonic the Hedgehog made $70 million that same weekend), and critics have already complained about the one-dimensional characters and incoherent plot points. I would like to zero in on one particularly incoherent plot point: What is going on with the depiction of skiing in Downhill?
Am I to believe that Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus have excellent form and can rip straight down bumps without ever turning their torsos? Or am I to believe that they are both so bad that they must wrench their entire bodies around to make a simple turn on the world’s biggest, emptiest blue runs? Downhill would have the audience hold both of these truths at once. I’m certainly not one to judge—actors can’t fake everything, and my own form often resembles the latter. But is there any more effective way to keep audiences distracted from the dialogue than keeping our minds racing about which scenes involve body doubles? I’m now compelled to rewatch Johnny Tsunami to see if all filmmakers attempt to get away with employing professional skiers and snowboarders for only half the scenes.
I can’t fully explain how these particular skiing inconsistencies made their way into the film. (Nor can I explain how someone thought it was a good idea to have a character imply, in one scene, that your ski instructor is allowed to hit on you aggressively, without encouragement, as long as he’s a hot European man.) Surely someone on the set of Downhill was an experienced skier. Maybe its filmmakers just figured audiences don’t really care what it looks like because we’re all here for the funny famous actors anyway. But I’m also going to chalk it up to the fact that filming in the Alps probably requires a very tight schedule or you’ll blow your budget. That makes my next observation additionally confusing: I’m convinced that some of the sweeping scenes of Pete and Billie shredding were computer generated. There are moments when they move in such a stiff, unnatural, yet weirdly smooth fashion that I could not shake the feeling I was watching an animated approximation of the sport. At the risk of sounding like a conspiracy theorist, I know something’s off when I see it.
That said, the filmmakers don’t get everything wrong. They seem to get the gear situation, at least. This is a well-to-do family that goes on regular ski vacations at resorts and, accordingly, everyone wears very nice, new-looking puffies (Ferrell conspicuously flashes a Salomon logo throughout most of the movie) and slightly tight snow pants, which seems accurate enough. There’s also a helpful PSA written into the script about how knit hats are not helmets and do not fit under helmets, people!
Should you see this movie? That depends. If you’re looking for something light and you like Julia Louis-Dreyfus, you will probably have a good time. If you saw and loved Force Majeure, as a lot of people did, you may find yourself suffering from “the original is better” syndrome, and you will probably not have a very good time. You may also have issues with Downhill if, like me, you are judgmental of fictional characters’ bad decisions (I’d never Force Majeure my significant other!) or if you still believe one’s significant other should communicate and acknowledge wrongs, especially if they abandon you in the middle of an apparent avalanche. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus are still funny actors who shine in drawn-out awkward conversations, but Pete is truly the caricature of an emotionally constipated midlife-crisis husband who would rather shut down than apologize. That’s the script’s fault and not the actor’s, but it ruined any emotional stakes in the film for me.
If you’re still conflicted about watching this film, consider doing it only so you can ponder the quality of skiing in the scenes and tell me that you’re seeing the computer-generated-images stuff, too.
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