Julia Louis-Dreyfus, movie star

The sitcom queen brings her mastery to the big screen in Downhill

(Image credit: Illustrated | Jaap Buitendijk/Twentieth Century Fox, Roman Bykhalets/iStock)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus is one of the most talented and successful comic actors in America, having managed (among other accomplishments) the near-impossible feat of starring in three different hit sitcoms in three different decades: Seinfeld in the 1990s, The New Adventures of Old Christine in the 2000s, and Veep in the 2010s (she won Emmys for all three). Though of course starring in a trio of long-running series has kept her busy for 20-plus TV seasons, it's still a little surprising to realize just how few movies she's appeared in — and how even fewer have given her a starring role. Without counting voiceover work or the occasional mom and/or love interest part, Louis-Dreyfus has starred in exactly two films: 2013's grown-up rom-com Enough Said, and this weekend's Downhill, a remake of the 2014 Swedish/Norwegian film Force Majeure.

Downhill pairs her with her fellow Saturday Night Live alum Will Ferrell, who has made a more traditional (though by no means typical) jump from TV comedy to big-screen success. Here they play a married couple who take their two sons on a lavish Austrian ski trip, to bond as a family and supposedly heal from a recent death in the family. Pete (Ferrell) is obviously missing more than his departed father; he gazes wistfully at the blithely hashtagged Instagram posts of a younger colleague Zach (Zach Woods), while Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) encourages him to put down his phone and stay in the moment. Tensions between Pete and Billie heat up when the family briefly faces down what looks like a deadly avalanche. Pete flees (with his phone, Billie notes), neglecting to make sure his family is safely by his side. The avalanche is a false alarm; the warning bells it sets off in Billie's head are not.

In different context, this could be a Seinfeld story. (In fact, it more or less was, albeit one involving Jason Alexander's George, rather than Louis-Dreyfus' Elaine: In "The Fire," George discovers a fire at a children's birthday party, and shoves through the crowd to get himself to safety.) Downhill has already gotten some attention for refashioning a dry, dark foreign-language film as an American comedy, staffed up with sitcom pros: beyond Louis-Dreyfus and Woods (The Office), directors/cowriters Jim Rash and Nat Faxon both moonlight as in-demand TV actors. The movie's central dynamic — a distracted and vaguely buffoonish husband, a dissatisfied wife, and some ski-based slapstick — could fit comfortably into any number of multi-camera or single-camera TV comedies.

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As it turns out, Downhill's greatest strength is the most sitcom-experienced member of the cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, characteristically terrific as Billie. She performs a pocket symphony of quiet irritation, especially when she's stuck in social situations that (at least initially) preclude her from addressing Pete's accidental betrayal — which he downplays to the point of refusing to acknowledge it. Repeatedly, Louis-Dreyfus has to nail reaction shots that aren't full reactions — essentially, she has to act from beneath a mask of social niceties that she can barely keep affixed to her face. The mask finally slips in a bravura scene where polite small talk with Zach and Rosie (Zoe Chao) descends into a full-on fight between Pete and Billie, after she can't stand to listen to him mischaracterize the event any longer. Even then, she airs her grievances with a kind of composure. (Being a lawyer, she essentially calls her children as witnesses.)

Louis-Dreyfus's work in Downhill isn't so far removed from what she does in Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said, which also imbued a sitcom-ready misunderstanding (a woman realizes she's dating her new friend's ex-husband, unbeknownst to either of them) with real depth of feeling. Downhill isn't as successful on the whole, but in a different way than Force Majeure fans might have anticipated. For the most part, the remake doesn't broaden its characters into caricatures of the dorky dad and the nagging wife — even Zach and Rosie feel like believable, non-malicious people. Instead, the movie goes earnest in the style of an American indie, chasing scenes of funny awkwardness with what looks suspiciously like genuine soul-searching. A yearning score backs these scenes, and the camera repeatedly captures the perhaps too-tidy metaphorical sight of Pete and Billie isolated by a pair of bathroom mirrors. If this sometimes feels like an exercise in comedians going straight, the cast is up to the task, especially Louis-Dreyfus. She has a moment of quivering disbelief in the immediate aftermath of the avalanche that's as vivid a piece of "serious" acting as she's ever had to do, and she nearly sells the idea that this material should have a sincere, sensitive dimension.

It's particularly satisfying to watch Louis-Dreyfus anchor movies for the first time as a middle-aged actress, playing parts that specifically engage with the mysteries and disappointments of growing older. For all of its unwillingness to go blackly comic, Downhill is a well-observed character dramedy, and Louis-Dreyfus makes a lot of its observations. If she doesn't get another hit series going in the 2020s, she'll be a welcome presence at the multiplex.

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