The story begins with Pete (Ferrell) and Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) on a ski vacation with their two sons in the Austrian Alps. They hit the slopes, and the movie hits the skids.
While there appears to be a degree of tension in the couple’s relationship — and Pete is clearly going through some things thanks to the death of his father months earlier — the trip is getting along well enough until a scary moment, when an avalanche suddenly strikes.
While Billie sits stunned with the boys, Pete leaps to his feet and runs. Everyone’s OK, but that single moment — his instinctive response to think of himself, not them, during a near-death experience — becomes a growing source of friction, one that continues to fester the longer it goes unaddressed.
It doesn’t help that the few notable supporting characters — including Miranda Otto as a free-spirited hotel worker with a German war-movie accent — seem to have parachuted in from a different film, there solely to force the characters into situations that will prompt them to confront and reexamine their choices and lives.
Their shared “Saturday Night Live” comedy chops notwithstanding, Louis-Dreyfus and Ferrell are certainly capable of pulling off the drama of a marriage in crisis, and she has one powerful scene in which her rage comes gushing out.
For the most part, though, they’re ill-served by the flimsy material, which leaves gaping holes in the characters — and thus clues to understand them — that even these earnest performances can’t fill.
Pete keeps quoting his late dad — who was fond of saying “Every day is all we have” — to explain his upbeat “seize the day” mentality. Yet in his melancholy, he’s clearly envious of a younger coworker (“Silicon Valley’s” Zach Woods) who arrives at the resort with his girlfriend (Zoe Chao), touting a “no agenda” approach to life that speaks to Pete’s dull ache over roads not taken and commitments made.
Still, so what? Middle-age angst is a fertile topic, but “Downhill” doesn’t bring anything fresh to the conversation. All it does, really, is make one marvel at how a project that must have looked promising on paper can quickly careen downward — like an avalanche, only here, in slow motion.
“Downhill” premieres Feb. 14 in the US. It’s rated R.