Monday August 10, 2009

Review: “Julie & Julia” (2009)


Has a movie ever been made, in which past and present are juxtaposed, where the present is not found wanting? “The Godfather—Part II,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” “Lone Star,” all say, more or less, the same thing: We suck.

“Julie & Julia” says it, too, although, one asssumes, unintentionally. It’s less the point of the juxtaposition than a consequence of it.

Sure, there are similarities to the title characters' stories. Off-hand comments by husbands push each onto their respective journeys. Julia Child (Meryl Streep), unsure what to do with her life in France in 1949, learns French cooking and, in collaboration with two French chefs (OK, one French chef), writes a French cookbook for Americans that sweeps the nation. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), unsure what to do with her life in Queens in 2002, spends a year cooking all 524 recipes in the Julia Child cookbook and writes a blog about it that sweeps the blogosphere.

Those are the similarities. Here are the differences.

Julia Child begins by looking inward: What do I want to do with my life? Julie Powell begins by looking outward: My friends have successful lives; why don’t I?

Julia Child spends years, literally years, writing and rewriting and testing her cookbook, before a publisher finally agrees to publish it. Julie Powell spends months, literally months, blogging about Julia’s recipes before she’s written up in The New York Times and offers for book deals come flooding in.

The great impediment to Julia’s cookbook involves the national tragedy of her time, McCarthyism, which ensnares her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), and spins the couple from this to that foreign service assignment in this and that country. The great impediment to Julie’s blog is either her own self-absorption, which ensnares her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), and spins him away from her for a night, or the national tragedy of her time, the 9/11 attacks, since her day job is to listen to and direct complaints and ideas about the fall of the twin towers. But she feels she’s above it. In fact, the whole point of her blog is to avoid that day job; to avoid the national tragedy of her time.

Most importantly, Julia Child has a joie de vivre that’s infects even the most dour French merchant and brightens any room. Julie Powell has a solipsistic petulance that infects even the most supportive of husbands and drags down any conversation.

As a result, you want to be with the former and you want to run from the latter. You care about the former’s story, less so the latter’s.

Location helps. Paris in ’49, c’mon. Plus that wonderful relationship with Paul. Plus all that wonderful food. Plus Meryl. No modifier necessary. She’s always good, but you watch her in a role like this and you’re amazed all over again. A reviewer wrote that she inhabits the role, and she does. She takes a real person, who has been caricatured for decades, and humanizes her by moving toward the caricature rather than away from it. There’s a triple joy here: the joy Julia brings into the room, the apparent joy Meryl has playing her, and the very real joy we have watching her play her. I didn’t want those scenes to end.

We learn a lot about someone we thought we knew. Eric, Julie’s husband—who looks like every boyfriend that ever appeared on “Sex and the City”—delivers a key line: “Julia Child wasn’t always Julia Child.” And she wasn’t. But a file clerk with the OSS? Who knew? It’s where she met her husband, a designer, and after the war he got stationed in Paris and she looked for something to occupy herself. “Shouldn’t I find something to do?” Meryl says in that high sing-song. She wanted to have children but couldn’t, which the movie deals with touchingly and efficiently. A glance in the park and a letter from her sister. Not a word spoken but a lifetime said.

She was a fighter. She had to fight her way into Le Cordon Bleu, she had to fight her way through drafts of the cook book, she had to fight the feeling it wasn’t worth it. She was all about taking the time to make it right, but we get a sense of where things are heading for our poor country when executives at Houghton Mifflin turn down her book as too imposing, too difficult for 1950s American housewives. Housewives, they implied, wanted quicker meals. But you speed up the timeframe and the meal isn’t the same. You speed up the timeframe and the life isn’t the same. We get 10 years of Julia’s life and one of Julie’s. Julia’s life is spread out like a ten-course meal while Julie’s is crammed into a Stouffers bag. Maybe that’s part of the reason Julia objected to Julie’s self-imposed year-in-the-life. The point isn’t to cram into; it’s to open up.

“Julie & Julia” is more than two hours long and I wanted more. I wanted to see how Julia got on TV. I wanted Julia, in her 90s, to appear at some moment in Julie’s life. I wanted more Julia, obviously, and more Meryl, who should get another Oscar nomination for this, and maybe, finally, that elusive third statuette. Our time comes off wanting, sure, but it is. But in that wanting, in that juxtaposition, a truer path is revealed. There’s no way our culture will take this truer path—the momentum is all in the other direction—but it doesn’t meant you and I can’t.

Bon appetit.

Posted at 08:20 AM on Monday August 10, 2009 in category Movie Reviews - 2009  
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