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Non-Review Review: Julie & Julia

I am quite surprised to admit that I greatly enjoyed Julie & Julia. Probably more than I should have, on careful analysis. The film’s main gimick – juxtaposing Julia Child’s time in France with Julie Powell’s attempt to cook through the gigantic tome which resulted from Child’s time in France – never really comes together, but it manages to work on pure whimsy despite highly predictable subject matter (indeed, the thread running through Julie’s storyline kinda presupposes the end of Julia’s arc – Julie wouldn’t be cooking from her book if she didn’t succeed). It isn’t a masterpiece or a classic, but it’s a very watchable piece of moviemaking.

Can you smell what the blogger's cooking?

I’m going to just come out and say it, because a lot of people are thinking about it. Meryl Streep did not deserve an Oscar nomination for this movie. She puts on one of the single most annoying accents in movie history and stands on what the industry calls “Scully boxes” while delivering a perfectly adequate performance – it isn’t terrible, but it isn’t Oscar-worthy, or even Oscar-nomination-worthy. And Streep is such a good actress that the accent never drops – it’s hard not to feel like a lobster with a knife jammed between its eyes every time she opens her mouth. If one actor deserved an awards nomination for this, it was Stanley Tucci. I know he got a nod for The Lovely Bones, but he is phenomenal here as the ever-faithful husband.

Despite how headache-inducing Streep can be as Julia Child, it’s fascinating that the retrospective scenes work better than the framing device set in the near-present. Director Nora Efron knows how to handle whimsy and here she demonstrates she knows how to handle nostalgia. Yes, her depiction of post-war Europe may be just a bit sacchrine, but it suits the material. I’m absolutely sure that Paris looked nothing like how it is presented here, but then Paris is a weird city – it doesn’t look anything like it is (if that makes sense), it feels somewhat grander and more beautiful than it is physically possible for any city to be, and Ephron captures that etherealism perfectly.

These scenes work not particularly because of the story unfolding – one woman exploring the world of cooking and finding her place in the world – but because of their wonderful randomness. Tied together by the underlying story, we get glimpses of a middle-aged couple who can’t have children (handled here almost as tastefully as in Up) and of Julie’s family life (Ephron manages to convince us, against odds, that Jane Lynch and Meryl Streep could be related). It’s more a collection of scenes than a story, or at least it’s these scenes which interest us more than the putting together of the cookbook (complete with backstabbing and manipulation the movie doesn’t seem entirely comfortable handling).

By contrast, the scenes depicting Julie Powell working her way through the cook book are a lot more focused and arguably suffer for it. Being honest, it’s hard not to get a sense that Hollywood isn’t entirely comfortable with blogging in the same way that it had difficulty with email and the internet – they never really fit fluidly into a given narrative, instead sitting out a little awkwardly. Julie claims not to know if anyone is reading her blog – could she not check her stats? Just little things like that. There’s none of the whimsy and randomness which accompanies the flashback scenes to be found here – it’s mostly relationship and ‘live your dream’ narrative, played entirely straight.

And that’s a shame, because Amy Adams is actually the stronger of the two leads. She can do romantic comedy. And she can do romantic comedy well. It just makes Leap Year somewhat harder to explain. There’s just the very simple fact that she does next to nothing over the course of the movie, except cook and live with her husband. Of course there are the necessary hurdles, but they all straighten themselves out.

I’m not entirely comfortable with the film’s attitude towards women. At one point, after bitching about another of her friends blogging vacuously, Julie ponders “What do you think it means if you don’t like your friends?” Her husband replies with the simple observation that he likes his friends, only to be shot down with the observation that he only likes his friends because he’s a man. Obviously women hate their friends, a theme furthered with the subplot about Julia Child dealing with a companion who wasn’t pulling her weight as it were. They proceed to effectively cut her share of the profits despite the fact the book was her idea. It seems just a little mean, particularly the glib way it was handled. But maybe I’m just being hypersensitive and I just don’t understand women and romantic comedies.

Arguably the biggest flaw with the movie concerns its ending. So I’m going to talk about that after this paragraph. Consider yourself forewarned, read on at your peril and so forth. Still with us? Good.

Anyway, the film doesn’t connect the two narratives. Which is grand, in fairness. Not all of us get to interact with our idols or our inspiration. However, after spending half the film watching Julia struggle against the system and manage to succeed despite the disapproval of the establishment (particularly snooty French teachers), we get the suggestion at the end that she actively disapproved of Julie Powell’s project. That is the only thread which connects the two. And we get some (albeit justified) suggestion that the Julia Child inside Julie Powell’s head is the one that matters, not the real one, but it’s quite something to tell us near the end of the film that the title billed character we’ve been watched championed as a woman who overcame it all and has the common touch is suddenly a horribly stuck-up cow.

In fairness, it is the truth of the matter that Julia Child didn’t like the blog. That’s fair and reasonable. Her reason was that she considered it ‘a stunt’ – she had her reasons. But, after the movie has spent quite a bit of time getting to like her as a character, she suddenly becomes a one-dimensional plot device and a hurdle for Julie to overcome. That’s a crap way to treat a real person whose biography you are filming, but it’s also just shoddy filmmaking.

That’s the biggest problem of the movie. It’s not perfect or anywhere near it, but it is pretty entertaining as films of the genre go. You could do worse.

2 Responses

  1. I enjoyed Julie & Julia very much as well. I did think the Julie Powell narrative was more interesting than the Julia Child one although both actress acquit themselves quite well.

    • I had the opposite reaction: I liked the cheese factor of the flashbacks to post-war France. I really hated Streep’s accent. Though it’s a very dedicated performance, it just grated me. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

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