Friday, August 14, 2009

Julie & Julia Movie Review #2

Posted by Jennifer

In my twenties, I was a gormless girl. A journalism school dropout, I read the female practitioners of the new journalism rather than writing myself. My much older boyfriend had previously been involved with the owner of a small French restaurant, the best in the city in which I then lived. In a move that is now cringe-making, I started to cook my way through the two volumes of Julia Childs Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the belief that if the old girlfriend was a good cook I had to be a better cook.

In the end, the relationship with the man did not last. However, I learned to cook well enough to work for the old girlfriend in her restaurant. My published writing has mainly been about food. And, I got to meet Julia Child four times.

The newly released movie Julie & Julia resonates for me on several levels. Nora Ephron was one of the female writers I was reading at the same time I was cooking through Mastering. Following in the steps of her screenwriter parents, Ephron has become a celebrated director and screenwriter. Here she is screenwriter, director and producer.

I also recognize the Julie of Julie & Julia. She, too, is a writer, one disguised as a clerk. Published in 2005, the book is based on the blog which Julie Powell wrote as she cooked her way through the 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days. In the pre-blogosphere world in which I grew up, I could never have imagined that anyone outside my immediate acquaintances would have been interested in my cooking adventures. I know even they were rolling their eyes after I used the phrase, But Julia wouldnt do it that way, once too often. Julie Powells chronicle quickly became a blog success story, winning the attention of the New York Times and ultimately a book contract. To Julies great dismay, Julia Child, then late in her life, was not amused.

By itself, Julies story - almost 30, post-9/11 clerk, married and living in Queens with her husband and with a bevy of nasty friends would not have made much of a movie. However, by weaving together Julie & Julia and Julia Child’s own memoir, My Life in France written with her great nephew, Alex Prudhomme, at the end of her life and published posthumously, Nora Ephron has created something memorable.

Though probably best characterized as a romantic comedy, both strands of the story are set in periods of upheaval. Julias took place as the world recovered from World War II and the United States grappled with McCarthyism. Julies story unfolds in a New York reeling from the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.

At worst, some people have labeled Meryl Streep’s performance as Julia a parody or a caricature. To me it seemed as though she simply became Julia - often close to the line but never over it, capturing not just her distinctive voice and mannerisms but also the less tangible qualities, the openness to new experiences, the endless curiosity which made her the perfect person to translate French cuisine for the North American masses. She knew what questions they needed answered because she had asked them herself.

The union between Julia and Paul Child is at the forefront of the movie as it was in the memoir and in an earlier biography. Theirs was a both a very sensual and supportive union and the portrayal of its steadfastness moved me to tears. Streeps sensitivity to Julias character is best realized when she displays simultaneous joy and sorrow when Julias sister announces her pregnancy. One wonders whether Julia Child would have accomplished what she did had she had children, but it was a disappointment in her life. While the spotlight has mainly been on Meryl Streeps role as Julia, Stanley Tuccis portrait of Paul Child is equally engaging. By contrast, the relationship between Julie and her husband Eric, seems much more in flux(the relationship has survived the blog; they are still together).
Though she suffers by comparison to Meryl Streep, Amy Adams makes Julie Powell more likeable and less self-absorbed than the book made her seem.

Even the smaller parts are well cast. Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, Julias sister and parents, and Avis De Voto are all as imagined. The Vogue fashionista, Joan Juliet Buck, plays Julias Cordon Bleu nemesis, Mme Brassart, to icy perfection. But when all is said and done, what can top Paris playing itself or sole meuniere gilded to perfection?

Five years after her death, the movie is a timely reminder of the force of nature that was Julia Child, and brings a last century icon to a 21st century audience.

See our first review