“Downhill” feels a lot like it should be a comedy. It looks like one, for starters. It stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the most lauded comedic actress on American television, and Will Ferrell, the “Saturday Night Live” goofball whose caricatures of men and masculinity have carved out an inimitable place in American humor.
“Downhill” reads like a comedy, too. An absurd event — an approaching, but ultimately harmless avalanche at a bougie Austrian ski resort — begets an absurd outcome: a husband who runs from his family in the face of danger and incites an existential crisis in his marriage.
But, “I see it as a drama principally,” Louis-Dreyfus said on the red carpet of the film’s New York premiere Wednesday night. “Then, there’s comedic relief. I envisioned the film as an opportunity to straddle both worlds, the way life does, frankly.”
An adaptation of the Swedish film “Force Majeure,” “Downhill” isn’t one big punchline for marriage, even if two titans of American comedy are on the poster. Rather, the film — and the central conflict between wife Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and husband Pete (Ferrell), who must confront the basic crisis of mutual obligation in the circumstance of near-death — unfolds like a slow-burning Hitchcockian thriller.
“My character is trying to reconcile this crisis,” Louis-Dreyfus told Variety on the red carpet outside the SVA Theatre, “particularly because her husband is denying that this event even happened. The fact that she saw what she saw, that is more terrifying to her fundamentally than the actual avalanche itself. There’s this unraveling of their family dynamics as a result.”
Like any Hitchcock film, “Downhill” doesn’t place characters with whom we’re meant to sympathize in dignifying situations — though, like most American adaptations of European social satires, “Downhill” does lend Pete and Billie more compassion. Instead, it asks us to recognize insecurity, fear and relief in ourselves, reflected in Pete’s instinct to abandon his family and Billie’s questioning of the constitution of their marriage.
“It’s asking, how well do you know your partner?” said Ferrell, who shows off his flair for drama in “Downhill.” “How would you react in the face of an imminent threat? Would you make the right decision or the wrong decision? Would you abandon your family? How do people deal with shame?”
He continued: “It’s a movie about truth and honesty, and exploring someone who is probably the most complex character I’ve gotten to play — a real character — is an exciting challenge. I’m usually playing high-concept, over-the-top-comedy, but Pete is a real, grounded person who’s faced with trying to dig himself out of this hole.”
That “Downhill” wraps existential suspense in the arms of two master comedians was, in this way, “a real challenge of tone,” according to co-director Nat Faxon.
“But Will and Julia were able to delicately infuse the comedy with an intense sense of drama and peril,” Faxon explained. “Anybody that runs from their family and grabs their phone could easily be someone you dislike. What was so great about Will is that he brings a likability to the character in a way that you feel remorse. You feel his internal questioning. Yet, Julia owns this arena. She’s able to go through the whole range of emotion, sometimes within the confines of an 11-page scene, from anger, to sorrow, to being completely unhinged.”
According to Louis-Dreyfus, who marks her first post-“Veep” role with “Downhill” and her first foray into film producing, “it was critically important that we balanced the characters’ experience of this traumatic event.”
Billie’s reaction to Pete’s cowardice, as well as Billie and Pete’s messy responses to the event that seriously explodes their lives, are crucial, says Louis-Dreyfus, when toeing the risky line between genre, especially for two comedians.
“I wanted to make sure that the mother, the wife in this piece, had her own flaws that she had to own at the same time,” she said. “It is critically important that there isn’t a good guy and a bad guy. That’s fundamentally the root of drama in comedy.”