Will Ferrell has made a career out of playing idiots. That’s hardly novel among funnymen — both Chevy Chase and Adam Sandler, both of them like Ferrell alums of Saturday Night Live, got rich following a similar formula — but the 52-year-old star perfected a specific kind of simpleton. In early hits like Anchorman and Talladega Nights, he depicted blustery alpha males who didn’t realize that their time was running out. Poor Ron Burgundy epitomized a certain kind of 1970s swinging-dick misogynist about to be run over by the women’s liberation movement in general and aspiring anchor Veronica Corningstone (Christina Applegate) specifically. Ricky Bobby was a Baby Jesus-worshipping good ol’ boy whose racetrack reign is threatened by his polar opposite: a gay, cultured Frenchman named Jean Girard (Sacha Baron Cohen). Even Ferrell’s portrayal of George W. Bush was highlighted by the actor’s sneaky acknowledgment that this rube’s tough-talking was all an act — Dubya knew he was in over his head.
As Ferrell has gotten older, he’s still playing fools, but they’re not nearly as swaggering as they once were. That’s one of the things that’s most interesting about his new film, Downhill, the so-so remake of the acclaimed Swedish dark comedy Force Majeure. As Pete, the ineffectual patriarch of an unhappy American family on a swanky Austrian ski trip, Ferrell isn’t a raging sexist or flag-waving bozo. Pete’s a much more human-scaled idiot — pathetic, cowardly, a small little man. Downhill tries to get you to feel somewhat sorry for him, which is a bit of a feint. The Petes of the world are always given the benefit of the doubt — the movie argues, maybe we shouldn’t.
Even if you haven’t seen Ruben Östlund’s original, Downhill reveals Force Majeure’s great twist in its trailer. Pete and his lawyer wife Billie (an excellent Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are taking their young sons on vacation, way up in the Austrian mountains. We sense some tension between man and wife almost from the start — he won’t stop texting and just be present with his family, which annoys Billie — but the real problems start when they all eat on a beautiful outdoor deck of the resort, the snowy mountains in the distance. The resort sets off controlled avalanches, and as the snow rolls down the mountain, it gets disturbingly close to the restaurant — and Pete’s family. In a moment of sheer terror, Billie wraps her arms around her sons to protect them — while Pete makes a desperate run for it. Thankfully, disaster is averted, but the damage is done. Billie and her kids now look at Pete as the uncaring father and husband who fled to save himself. What kind of man is he?
When I saw Force Majeure — and an earlier film with a somewhat similar premise, The Loneliest Planet — I always felt a bit bad for the male protagonists, who reacted poorly in a split second, putting their own needs in front of others. For me, those movies spoke to a universal fear probably shared among many men: Sure, we’d like to think we’d be gallant when danger struck, but what if we didn’t? Would that moment of cowardice define us for the rest of our days? Are we really as bad as our worst instance? Can’t good guys make mistakes, too?
Downhill plays with Östlund’s narrative a little, but directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way, Way Back) mostly stick to the script, watching as Pete stews in the knowledge that his wife now loathes him. Usually, Ferrell plays the loud buffoon, but there’s something quiet, defeated and emasculated about this performance — which is funnier because he’s so much taller than Louis-Drefyus. The way she glares at him, Pete might as well be about four feet tall. He can try whatever he wants — denying Billie’s version of events, insisting it isn’t that big of a deal, using his father’s recent death as an excuse for his actions — but he’s screwed. If Pete was ever the head of the household, he isn’t anymore.
The movie plays as an intriguing double feature with Daddy’s Home, the hit 2015 comedy in which Ferrell was Brad, a sensitive, thoughtful husband and stepdad forced to compete with Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), the bad-boy ex-husband whose Brad’s new family still really loves. Instead of the alpha male, Ferrell this time was the wimp — a laudable modern man who’s in touch with his feelings — and the whole film felt like a clever subversion of the strutting characters that launched his Hollywood career.
But Brad was ultimately a decent fella. By comparison, Pete is someone who thinks he’s a good guy, only to realize that he’s actually massively self-absorbed and self-pitying, falling ass-backwards into a midlife crisis he thinks he’s entitled to. Near the start of Downhill, we learn about his dad’s death — Pete has brought along his old man’s ski cap as a memento — and Billie gives him a reassuring embrace. “That’s why we’re here,” she tells him about this vacation, suggesting that father and son shared a love of skiing. But the getaway quickly becomes an excuse for Pete to mope. Any new friend they meet at the resort is someone for Pete to bore with tales of his dad. Adopting his late father’s seize-the-day attitude, Pete has decided it’s an excuse to only worry about himself. So he texts a work buddy (Zach Woods) in the hopes that they can meet up. He drinks a little too much and reminisces about his swinging singlehood a little too longingly. Again and again, he just doesn’t seem like he wants his family. And when an avalanche comes, Pete abandons them completely. In a sense, though, he abandoned them a long time ago.
Ferrell isn’t the subtlest of actors, which is fine since his comedy relies on his bigness. (Imagine what that imbecile from Step Brothers would have been like if he was muted.) Whether on SNL or in his feature films, his strength is inspired exaggeration. So Pete is a bit of a challenge for him, and while it doesn’t entirely work, Downhill shows what Farrell’s next decade could look like. He’s done dramatic work in the past — solid films like Stranger Than Fiction — but he seems a little more relaxed here. That may be in part because he’s paired with Louis-Dreyfus, whose excellent slow-burn fury at Pete allows Ferrell to be an ace straight man. It’s appropriate that Downhill belongs to her: Pete is such a nothing of a man that Billie gets to have the best comedic and emotional moments.
And yet the film slyly suggests that the world has come to expect so little of a Pete that we’re cheered by even the smallest signs of growth in such a moral lightweight. Near the end of Downhill, Pete will have an opportunity to redeem himself. I won’t reveal what that redemption is, or how it plays out, but Faxon and Rash practically cue us to be touched by his meager attempt. That’s a trick, though — and an indication of how dads and husbands are given such slack by our society. If you actually feel bad for Pete — and not Billie — you’re part of the problem.
In the early part of his career, Ferrell played a certain kind of brash everyman who was so over-the-top that we laughed at his ridiculousness. In Downhill, the fool he plays is much more invisible and therefore far more common. You probably don’t run into a Ron Burgundy on a daily basis. But you see Petes everywhere: Painfully mediocre men who care only about their own feelings and seem completely pleased with their own adequacy. Even worse, you might be married to a Pete. God forbid if you actually are him.