Julie & Julia

2 11 2009
Julie & Julia 00

I first saw "Julie & Julia" on the "2009 First Look" edition (dated 09 January 2009) of Entertainment Weekly magazine. And yes, those are my movie tickets.

I LOVE good food and I love to cook.  And by the 14th of this month, I will have been blogging for a year.  So this movie’s premise that it’s based on two true stories – that of culinary legend the Julia Child and blogger Julie Powell – appeals to me.

Writer-director Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” opens in 1949 with Julia Child (played by the Meryl Streep) and husband Paul’s (Stanley Tucci) debarkation in post-World War II Paris where Paul is taking his latest American Embassy posting.  As their car sweeps past images of the City of Lights, I hear Julia practicing her French giddily, bursting with excitement over what life in a new place can offer.  In one of the first scenes, they feast over what can only be perfectly prepared sole meunière for lunch at a cozy bistro.  The scene gives a tight shot not only of the perfectly prepared fish – sizzling in sinful butter in the pan it was cooked in – but also of the great skill that is needed to fillet it tableside.  Julia takes a whiff of the dish, closes her eyes to take the experience in, and with the first bite revels in its taste and texture.  She shares the gastronomic moment with her husband and the scene tells me what I’m up for:  a story of love – for good food and between soulmates.  At least for the protagonist whose name appears after the ampersand in the movie title.

To a time fifty-three years later, the movie cuts to New York where another couple embarks on a change of their own.  Packing their things – with one scene showing fully stuffing a box labeled “cookbooks” – Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) drive to Queens to move into a dingy apartment, the most amazing quality of which is that it is (repeat after me) 900 square feet.  Plus, it is close to where Eric works as a magazine editor.  When she points this out, I definitely sense depression in her voice.  The following scenes showing her volleying a plastic bag blown by the wind, taking the commuter train to work, and juggling calls from understandably disgruntled 9/11 insurance claimants summarize the kind of underachievement that sadly hounds her.  She was editor at Amherst College and attempted to write a novel.  She shelves this dream – eight years later – and ends up at her current thankless mid-level bureaucrat job.

Julie’s life is nowhere near enviable especially when she complains – save for a marriage (to a genuinely loving husband) that seems to work.  It reaches its height when she blabbers almost incessantly about being duped by one of her friends to become a subject on a magazine cover story about the lost generation of the 30-somethings.  She is long-winded at times but when she gets into an exposition of what she loves about cooking, I was all ears.  I paraphrase: “Do you know that I love about cooking?  On a day when nothing is sure – and I mean nothing – you can go home and mix eggs, chocolate, butter, and milk and you know it’s going to be thick.  It’s such a comfort.”  The scene also allows me another lascivious close-up of food, this time a chocolate cream pie.

When Julie finally hits on the idea of cooking, in the space of 365 days, every single one of the 524 recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” the landmark doorstopper of a cookbook that Julia Child wrote with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, and blogging about it, the film’s structure becomes even clearer.  As Julie launches into and progresses with her project, the film seamlessly intercuts to scenes showing how Julia came to write a cookbook that revolutionized French cooking that was originally intended for the “servantless American cooks.”

As the movie progresses, the promise of parallelism between the lives of the two protagonists hits a fork in the road and diverges.  Julia Child expresses love through her cooking.  She emanates the kind of joie de vivre that can only come from someone who enjoys life and selflessly offers the same to others.  She actually brings to mind all my own sentiments about cooking for someone.  Julie Powell, on the other hand, is driven by a very narcissistic goal to finally “finish something” as she turns 30, competing with her equally narcissistic friends – all three of them.  With their assistants, multi-million dollar deals and Blackberrys, they possess egos bigger than the tri-state area.

Which brings me to how I truly feel about the movie.  Everytime the scenes intercut to Julia, I feel inspired.  Her sequences actually build up to something really aspirational.  It is like starting with the freshest egg whites and beating them to a frenzied snow point.  Beautiful, stands on its own, pure in its whiteness.  Which is something I cannot say about the Julie bits.  Her scenes are full of tantrums, frustration over an interview prospect that got called off because it was “raining cats and dogs,” and shrieking excitement over 53 comments on her blog post from people she doesn’t know.  Truth be told, it looks pretty self-absorbed.  As her storyline progresses, it brings to mind the soufflé Audrey Hepburn as Sabrina prepares.  It collapses.  Is reduced to a mess.

Towards the end of the movie, both women achieve any writer’s ultimate goal – publishing success.  But even in the depiction of these moments, Julia Child’s clearly outshines the much much lesser Julie’s.  From that pivotal simmering moment when Julia reads the letter from Knopf that they are interested to publish her book, to when Julia and her editor were deciding on the title of her 700-page manuscript – so that’s how some of them do it in publishing houses! – I couldn’t help but root for Julia so much that I wanted to applaud the moment.  Somewhere in Queens half a century later, Julie hears the same news about her imminent achievement as one message after another plays on her answering machine.  The book she eventually publishes provides the title of the movie.  But it all – yet again – feels so selfish and small-minded.  To make my point clearer, when Julia was reading the letter – even stumbling with pronouncing Knopf (“Is it kuh-NA-pf or NOFF? Who cares!”) – I was so overcome by emotion that I felt a lump form in my throat.

I had to pause and review what I’ve written so far especially after I realize that I have kept on referring to the character “Julia” and not the actress “Meryl.”  I belive this is a testament to Meryl Streep’s undeniable achievement in this film.  With her record-breaking number of Oscar nominations, every superlative has been used to describe her acting.  While she fearlessly toys with caricature and imitation – in the hefty build, the shoulders, the gait, the fluting birdcall voice down pat – she totally veers away from impersonation and actually presents a respectful image of the culinary legend.  It is all Julia Child I see – from an American woman struggling against gender bias at Le Cordon Bleu to an American woman succeeding in inspiring cooks with her familiar TV spiel “I’m Julia Child.  Bon apetit!”

Though expectedly imbalance in terms of subject matter, “Julie & Julia” is buoyed by a charismatic tour de force performance by an American acting living legend.  And like any home-cooked meal prepared by a servantless cook, it may not be perfect but it is so comforting and good enough just the same.

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