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Friday, August 07, 2009

Julie and Julia

It’s hard not to say that Meryl Streep was born to play the role of Julia Child. After all, she’s practically a salute to reincarnation in the flesh as it is. She’s already inhabited the skins of a severely damaged Polish Holocaust survivor (Sophie’s Choice), a Danish Baroness living large in colonial Kenya (Out of Africa), a 1970’s Aussie housewife on trial for killing her own child (A Cry in the Dark), First Lady Abigail Adams in tv's "The Story of Us", multiple roles as an Angel, a condemned spy and a male Rabbi in HBO’s epic “Angels in America”, and then last year she dazzled everyone with two major parts that couldn’t have been more contrasting ~ as a fun-loving, singing-her-heart-out mother of the bride in the hit musical Mamma Mia! and as the dour inquisitor Mother Superior Roman Catholic nun determined to root out sexual abuse within her parish even if it exists only within her own Doubt. So, why not Julia Child? It makes sense to me, and, of course, as she does with everything else, Meryl does it perfectly in the new film Julie and Julia.

For those not in the know, Julie and Julia is “based on two true stories”, obviously one being a slice of Julia Child’s life as she goes from being “private citizen” Julia to famous Grande Gourmand Julia Child and television star. The other half of the title refers to blogger/writer Julie Powell, played here by the darling Amy Adams (Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian), as a post-9/11 New Yorker looking for some meaning in her life outside of work and discovers it in cooking, or, more precisely, in cooking all the recipes in Julia Child’s opus Mastery of French Cooking and then blogging about her adventures in doing so during the course of a single year. The problem with this bit is that Julie doesn’t really have any adventures unless you call getting scolded by her boss for calling in sick when she is actually staying home to cook for a visit from a food critic an “adventure.” Her “high drama” amounts to a single argument with her otherwise saintly husband Eric (Chris Messina; Vicky Cristina Barcelona), but then he doesn’t really have much to do throughout the film but eat, burp, and look gorgeous, so the tension or excitement level kind of bottoms out whenever the story shifts from Julia to Julie, making you crave the moment when next we’ll be transported again to the 1950s or ‘60s and pick up the tale of Julia and her much more fascinating husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci; Kit Kittredge: An American Girl). At least their marriage seemed to be passionate and full of creative energy.

Paul is portrayed here as being as important an ingredient to Julia’s early successes as she was simply by being her most ardent cheerleader and believer in her talents. Their love affair is a strong component of the film even though I wouldn’t call this a conventional love story. However, it’s their meeting while working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) in the early part of World War II, then traveling to China and throughout Europe together (rumored to be American spies no less!) in the years before Paul settled in as an envoy to the Embassy in Paris and Julia began her studies at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy that acts as the backdrop to where their tale picks up as the film begins. Now this is a story that is much more flavorful and beautiful to behold than the sight of poor Julie cooking in her dumpy walk-up in Queens circa 2002. There’s no way around that save the charming presence of Ms. Adams herself, who simply lights up the screen with her smile. There’s not a chance I’d shy away from watching her cook shoe leather if she asked me to, but still even I have to admit that a full-on Amy Adams smile can’t replace the sight of Meryl Streep strolling past Notre Dame on an Autumn day.

Julie and Julia is a delectable treat from beginning to end. Special note should be made of the always delightful Jane Lynch (Role Models), who shows up here in an all-too-brief cameo as Julia’s sister Dorothy. Her visit from the U.S. proves that “two McWilliams girls from Pasadena” are always better than one. I don’t even care if a sequel would require making the entire story fiction from beginning to end ~ I’d pay to watch these two gals laugh and mug together over absolutely nothing and be completely satisfied with the end result. They are an ideal comic fit and totally believable as family. Very tall family, as Dorothy would say. Also worthy of credit are the two actresses who play Julia’s co-authors on her original book, Linda Emond (The Missing Person) as Simone Beck and Helen Carey (21) as Louisette Bertholle. Both are clever as they try their best to keep up with Ms. Streep in their scenes, but together they are priceless. In one scene, set at an outdoor café, the plan is that Julia will confront Louisette about her lack of commitment and contribution to their joint project over the long haul, but when that goes horribly awry, it is the supposedly cowardly Simone who steps in and aggressively confronts the slacker of their trio. The interaction between Emond and Carey while Streep simply looks on in shock is worth a round of exuberant applause, just for the magnificent expressions the two exchange as they steam in anger between their verbal eruptions.

The only real letdown in Julie and Julia comes from reality itself. For those expecting an eventual meeting between the epicurean legend and her faithful follower before the final credits roll… well, it doesn’t happen. In a fictional work, no doubt Julia, as she circles the drain in her sunset years, would be alerted to Julie’s blog, read it, and rally from her deathbed to meet the young whippersnapper who wants to carry on her legacy, and the two would joyfully embrace as the screen goes dark. Yeah, well, unfortunately, in this universe the real Julia Child did get wind of Julie’s blog and didn’t approve. According to an interview after Child’s death in 2004, Judith Jones, her Senior Editor at Alfred A. Knopf, reported that she had read the blog to Childs, and “Julia said, ‘I don’t think she’s a serious cook.’ ” Jones thought there was a generational difference between Powell and Child. According to Jones, “Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia. She didn’t want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt. She would never really describe the end results, how delicious it was, and what she learned. Julia didn’t like what she called ‘the flimsies.’ She didn’t suffer fools, if you know what I mean.”

This disappointment is addressed briefly in
Julie and Julia but Powell herself admits that the idea to cook all of Child’s recipes was a self-serving act on her part designed to help get her out of a rut and back into “writing mode” after a stalled career, so, yes, if Julia saw that as a ‘stunt’ then it technically could be called that, but it wasn’t meant to offend. The idea was to prove she actually had talent while paying homage to a wonderful woman. I think Julie and Julia will give you both in great abundance. Go, enjoy, and remember: Bon appétit!

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