Julie & Julia

Fluffy and inconsequential, Nora Ephron's “Julie & Julia” is a mildly entertaining comedy that's based on a potentially intriguing gimmick but lacks a real emotional pay-off.  Juxtaposing two bored American wives in different historical eras, Julia Child (played by Meryl Streep) and Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams), it's a peculiar film about food in which the preparation for and results of cooking are not particularly appealing to the eye.

 

This is the second teaming of the gifted Streep and Adams, last seen together as nuns in “Doubt,” for which both received Oscar nominations (neither won).  Unfortunately, in this picture, the two women never meet and so we are treated to two separate stories, only one of which is intermittently interesting.  End result is a rather bland picture that, with its heavy reliance on voice-over narration (by all the characters), gets increasingly tedious repetitious in its structural and stylistic devices.

 

While Meryl Streep goes for the ride and gives an overly technical but vastly entertaining interpretation of chef guru Julia Child as “the woman who forever changed the way Americans cook and eat,” Adams is stuck with a rather dull role, built on calculated ups and downs that call attention to shortcomings of the scenario and characterizations.

 

Set in 1949, the first (and best) reel introduces Julia as a blissfully happy married American femme living in Paris with her husband Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), a diplomat in the American embassy.  Blessed with an upbeat personality and indefatigable spirit, and yearning to do something meaningful in her life, she translates her passion for eating into a passion for cooking. 

 

Cut to 2002, where we meet Julie Powell, an attractive femme, pushing 30 and living in a noisy, undesirable area in Queens (above a pizzeria), while working in a cubicle as a city bureaucrat.  Dissatisfied as a writer, she faces an emotionally exhausting job working for an organization devoted to rebuilding the World Trade Center site after 9/11 by helping resettle displaced residents. 

 

A cliché restaurant scene depicts Powell, surrounded by her upscale “bitchy” friends, each boasting her latest stunning success, while talking on the cell; if a man penned and helmed such a stereotypical scene he would have been accused of sexism.  

 

Julia becomes the first American woman to study at the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school, where she's exposed to discrimination along gender and national lines.  It doesn't help that she's much taller, more aggressive, and also more upbeat than her French peers.  “You have no talent for cooking,” says the French female administrator who hates Julia and would like to see her flunk the tests, “but Americans will never know the difference.”

 

Like Julia, Julie is a frustrated woman who, despite happy marriage to Eric (Chris Mesina), yearns to do something or “be somebody.”   Spurred to change her life, she decides to cook her way through Child’s best-seller, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (which Child co-wrote with Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck), make 524 recipes in 365 days and chronicle her efforts in a daily blog.  With the encouragement of Eric, at first excited just to be able to taste the fruits of her labors, Julie began detailing the ups and downs of her time-consuming project.

 

Based on the books “Julie & Julia” by Julie Powell and “My Life in France” by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, writer-director Ephron tries to meld these two factual stories into one joyous and engaging movie.  But the seams show and the constant shifting and crosscutting from one time period to another and from one woman to another accounts for a frustrating and repetitive movie, which lacks energy and rhythm.

 

For a while, the initial efforts of the two femmes to define themselves and succeed in the workplace, vastly male-dominated in Child's case and limited in opportunity and potential revenue in Powell's are interesting to observe. 

 

Powell and Child both discover a singular passion, passion for food that gets them through tough, uncertain times.  Julia Child thus becomes an imaginary friend for Powell as she must have been for millions of women who bought her cookbook. At present, blogging is an integral part of the fabric of our lives, but in 2002, Powell was sort of a pioneer, not realizing how ambitious her plan was.  However, since she was getting a kick out of it, and the results were positive, the struggle became more manageable.

 

Child's story, which is far more interesting, deserves a biopicture of its own, whereas Powell's saga is inherently dull.  No matter the ups and downs, and the many years, collaborations, and rejections that it takes Child to write and publish her book, husband Paul is always supportive, and more optimistic about his wife's than his own career. 

 

No so in the case of the Powells, and so we are treated to overly familiar scenes of arguments over priorities, accusations of narcissism and self-absorption, role reversals of husband moving out, and ultimate reconciliation.   The acts of writing and blogging (as I know all too well from my own work) are solitary, non-dramatic, and non-visual.  The little interest there is in Julie's saga is how popular her blog becomes (by way of hits) and the price she and her marriage pay for her tireless devotion and ultimate success.

 

Scenes of how the Powells' marriage becomes a delicate balancing act are predictable and boring, recalling another unsuccessful marital melodrama, based on Nora Ephron's real-life marriage, Mike Nichols' 1986 “Heartburn,” in which Meryl Streep plays Nora Ephron and Jack Nicholson Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post journalist and her cheating husband.

  

Midway, as if suddenly realizing that “Julie & Julia” should also be a biopic, Ephron inserts some mildly funny scenes, such as the one win which Julia's sister, Dorothy, arrives in France.  Even taller than Julia, Dorothy, just like her sister, is attracted to and ends up wedding a much shorter man. 

 

The broader politics of the era, Senator McCarthy, the HUAAC hearings, and blacklisting, are kept in the background and treated in haphazard way (even more superficially that they were in the Robert Redford-Barbra Streisand melodrama, “The Way We Were”), even though they had direct impact on Paul's career and indirect impact on Julia's, due to his frequent transfers to Marseille, Oslo, eventually living in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

 

Though much older than the character she plays (in 1949, Child was in her late 30s), Streep (who's 59) looks right, vividly conveying the all-around consuming passions of Child, for her husband, for her cooking, for her writing, and for living, reflecting a simple, unadulterated joie de vivre.  Fans of Streep will eat her performance, but her detractors may notice that what she does is more impersonation than acting. 

Though hampered by Ephron's schmaltzy writing and pedestrian helming, Streep's mannerism, heavy accent, proud height, and exaggerated gestures are fun to observe, but her part lacks nuance and shading, considering what an idiosyncratic woman Child was.

 

A light feminist streak runs through Child’s story of her years in post-WWII Paris, as the wife of American foreign-service employee Paul, when she was able to turn ardor for French cooking into dedicated mission to spread its pleasures to American households.  However, as scripted and directed by Ephron, many facets of her colorful, idiosyncratic, and well ahead-of-its-time actions–the very fact that she accomplished everything on her own–are missing, underplayed, or depicted in the same trivial way as other, less consequential events.  Even a significant emotional scene, when Julia receives a letter from Dorothy that announced the latter pregnancy, gets a brief depiction, and we seldom get a sense of Child's womanhood, the fact that she was an “old virgin” when meeting Paul and then childless. 


Perhaps the film should have focused more on the 1960s, when Julia popularized French cuisine in America by co-writing the aforementioned English-language cookbook whose immense popularity led to a TV show career that made her a household name. Child is credited with steering Americans away from the canned, the frozen and the processed and into food that was fresh, flavorful and made with unbridled joy, which became a wonderful metaphor for life itself.  Using Child's book was a way of signaling that a woman was intelligent, smart, and cool.

 

In contrast, it's a New York Times profile, written by food writer Amanda Hesser, that propels Powell to celebrity status with an audience of thousands reading her blog every day.  As a result, her writings also became more popular an accessible. Like Child, Powell got her own culinary adventure published as “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously,” released by Little, Brown in 2005.

 

Though not intended as such, “Julie & Julia” comes across as a conventional Hollywood message picture, showing that if you have the right combination of passion, obsession, and patience, you can change your life and achieve your dreams. 


End Note

Julia Child (August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004) introduced French cuisine and cooking techniques to the American mainstream, through her many cookbooks and TV programs. Her most famous works are the 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the TV series The French Chef, which premiered in 1963 and showcased her singular persona.

Cast

 

Julia Child – Meryl Streep
Julie Powell – Amy Adams
Paul Child – Stanley Tucci
Eric Powell – Chris Messina
Simone Beck – Linda Emond
Sarah – Mary Lynn Rajskub
Dorothy McWilliams – Jane Lynch
Irma Rombauer – Frances Sternhagen

Credits

 

Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Columbia Pictures presentation of an Easy There Tiger/Amy Robinson, Laurence Mark production.

Produced by Mark, Nora Ephron, Robinson, Eric Steel.

Executive producers, Scott Rudin, Donald J. Lee Jr., Dana Stevens.

Co-producer, Dianne Dreyer.

Directed, written by Nora Ephron, based on the books “Julie & Julia” by Julie Powell and “My Life in France” by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme.
Camera, Stephen Goldblatt.

Editor, Richard Marks.

Music, Alexandre Desplat.

Production designer, Mark Ricker; art director, Benjamin John Barraud; set decorator, Susan Bode Tyson.

Costume designer, Ann Roth.

Sound, Tod A. Maitland; supervising sound editor, Ron Bochar; supervising sound mixers, Lee Dichter, Ron Bochar.

Stunt coordinator, Peter Bucossi.

Associate producer, J.J. Sacha.

Assistant director, Jeffrey T. Bernstein; second unit director, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. Casting, Francine Maisler, Kathy Driscoll-Mohler.

 

MPAA Rating: PG-13.

Running time: 122 Minutes.