Julie & Julia (United States, 2009)August 08, 2009
When I was three years old and my playmates were happily watching Sesame Street and cartoons, I would sit in front of the television and gaze at the force of nature that was Julia Child (I also liked Graham Kerr, The Galloping Gourmet). Her larger-than-life personality, coupled with a self-deprecating wit and a genuine love for what she was doing came across even to someone as young as I was at the time. It didn't matter that her subjects were cooking (something about which I knew nothing) and food (one of life's necessities I wished I could have gone without); Julia's program was more entertaining than any of the kid-oriented mid-afternoon shows. To hell with Bullwinkle and Rocky; I wanted The French Chef. As enjoyable as Julia Child was to watch in 30-minute bites, however, her off-screen life was terribly ordinary, and not the sort of thing that would merit cinematic treatment. Perhaps that's why writer/director Nora Ephron chose to merge Julia's story with that of a 2002 blogger who cooked her way through all of Julia's recipes. The marriage of these two tales, however, should have ended in divorce court.
There are two serious problems with Julie & Julia - one is structural and the other pertains to dramatic thrust. Before discussing those, however, let me say a few words about the acting. Meryl Streep's interpretation of the iconic chef is uncanny. For about two hours, Streep is Julia, and it's not merely a case of mimicry. She's so good that one can almost understand the existence of the film merely as an excuse to get Streep on screen in the role. Alas, movies need more than top performances to succeed. Streep's co-star (for the second time in less than a year) is Amy Adams who, with a shorter hairstyle than she has sported in recent movies, is adorable as always, even playing a character who is amazingly self-centered (a self-confessed "bitch"). She brings some heft to a part that could have been written for Meg Ryan 15 years ago. (Julie Powell's dialogue sounds a lot like Sally Albright's.) Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina, as the respective husbands of Julia and Julie, provide able, albeit largely unmemorable, support.
Julie & Julia intercuts scenes from the life of Julia Child in the late 1940s and 1950s with those of Julie Powell, a Queens writer who uses her love of Julia as the foundation for a blog she begins in 2002. Her goal: cook every recipe in Julia's cookbook (Volume 1 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking) over a period of one year, and write about each success and failure. That's 524 dishes in 365 days. In the beginning, her husband loves the project - it focuses Julie's energy and has the byproduct of providing him with a varied menu every day. But as the blog becomes more popular and Julie becomes obsessed with the cooking and writing, the marriage buckles under the strain. Meanwhile, in the middle of the 20th century, Julia is learning how to cook during the period when she and her diplomat husband live in Paris. She then decides to write a cookbook for American women who want to cook French dishes - a project that would occupy her time for a decade.
In order to make the frequent transitions between Julia's era and Julie's world less awkward, Ephron imposes artificial parallels between the women and their lives. It doesn't help - the back-and-forth structure is distracting and never seems natural. To make matters worse, Julia Child's story is not especially interesting. If the movie is to be believed, she led a perfectly normal life, and that's not the thing of which compelling cinema is made. Julie's story is more engaging, but even filling 50% of a two-hour slot, it's stretched thin.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Julie & Julia is the lack of dramatic closure. In real life, Julie never met Julia, although the latter woman was still alive when the former completed her blog project. (According to one scene, Julia was more offended than flattered by what Julie accomplished.) Although Ephron could have contrived a fictional encounter, she chose not to - a decision I applaud. However, the way in which the script is constructed points to something happening to bring the two together at the end and, when that doesn't happen, we're left feeling deflated. The issue isn't that there's no meeting between Julie and Julia, but that the structure of and clues within the screenplay point to this happening. I was surprised when the end credits began; it didn't seem the movie had reached a conclusion, even though the major threads (Julia's cookbook; Julie's blog) were resolved.
This is Nora Ephron's first feature since 2005's Bewitched (the less said about that, the better), and she hasn't had a bona fide success in more than a decade (since 1998's You've Got Mail). Known primarily as a chick flick purveyor, Ephron slots Julie & Julia into that category. It's moderately successful in addressing some fairly standard issues about finding oneself through doing something one loves (in this case, cooking), but it's less effective in developing the sort of mouth-watering food-related experience delivered by the likes of Babette's Feast, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Big Night (which also featured Tucci). Despite showing plenty of meals and dishes, Ephron lacks the directorial skill to stimulate the salivary glands. Arguably, the best parts of Julie & Julia are the re-creations of segments from The French Chef and an airing of Dan Aykroyd's classic parody. As good as Streep is, however, it's still more enjoyable to watch the originals, and the SNL bit can easily be found elsewhere. Consequently, the best that Julie & Julia has to offer doesn't require seeing the movie at all.
Julie & Julia (United States, 2009)
Cast: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina
Screenplay: Nora Ephron, based on Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme
Cinematography: Stephen Goldblatt
Music: Alexandre Desplat
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures