The movie is particularly disappointing with regards to Ferrell. Where Louis-Dreyfus has made an iconic television character out of Veep’s Selina Meyer, Ferrell, the most euphoric comedic performer of the aughts, has largely receded in the course of the past decade. As his recent appearances on Saturday Night Live prove, he’s no less funny than he once was. He simply hasn’t found the right vehicles. The last theatrically released movie he starred in that has a Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes is 2013’s Anchorman 2. Most of his work between then and now has either been minor (Ferrell Takes the Field, Between Two Ferns: The Movie), an underwhelming sequel (Zoolander 2, Daddy’s Home 2), or a poor attempt at reconjuring the bonkers magic of his collaborations with Adam McKay (Get Hard, The House). His last big studio effort, 2018’s Holmes & Watson, was so notoriously awful that the Paper of Record published an article that asked if it was so bad it was actually good (spoiler: just bad).
I say all of this with all due respect to Ferrell, who has probably brought me more laughter than any other individual I do not know personally; whose characters I’ve quoted more than I’ve quoted the Founding Fathers; who even once inspired me to attend an actual Catalina Wine Mixer. Like Ricky Bobby, I’m sure that Will Ferrell wakes up in the morning and pisses excellence. But it’s practically unavoidable: eventually, all of the greatest comic performers’ bread and butter movies begin to produce staler versions of themselves. Hollywood finds a bankable formula and milks it dry. The best funny people are lucky if their prime lasts longer than a fashion cycle; stretching it through multiple presidential administrations is almost unheard of.
At a certain point, the way forward is to link up with a talented admirer, and subvert what it is the actor does—think Paul Thomas Anderson underlining Adam Sandler’s bottled rage in Punch Drunk Love, Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry tapping Jim Carrey’s tragic side in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Sofia Coppola highlighting Bill Murray’s loneliness in Lost in Translation. With ability established, taste becomes paramount.
There have been efforts to do something similar with Ferrell, the best among them Dan Rush’s 2011 Raymond Carver adaptation, Everything Must Go. As a recently fired and dumped alcoholic, Ferrell is funny, but in a way that’s grounded, with him doing more grumbling and wallowing than shouting. He gives his quietest performance, and it’s the rare one that makes being a man-child seem more dispiriting than playful (empty beer cans don’t result in debauchery, but desperation). The movie was Rush’s feature-length debut (and his lone film to date), and though it was critically well-received, it performed middlingly at the box office and it wasn’t that well received. As a movie, it’s a warm ember that never quite crackles into a flame.
But where Ferrell’s concerned, it’s remained a glimmer in my mind—a signal of his ability not to do something ‘serious,’ but rather something new and ambitious. The pitch of comedies has gotten weirder and more absurd in recent years, and it’s a travesty that it’s happened without a comedic force as great as Ferrell. What, I’ve wondered, would the Safdie Brothers do with him? Or Ari Aster? Or Yorgos Lanthimos? Ultimately, one of the reasons Downhill is so disappointing is that Ferrell is acting in one of Östlund’s past movies rather than one of his future ones. The prospect of it comes at you like an avalanche, but, well, you know…