Julie & Julia

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/07/09 00:00:00

"Insert "Too Many Cooks" Reference Here. . ."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Once upon a time, there was an episode of “The Simpsons” in which a newly rich Homer went to the swankiest restaurant in Springfield and ordered the finest item on the menu stuffed with the second finest--the result being a lobster stuffed with tacos. As I was watching “Julie & Julia,” it occurred to me that the film was a lot like that particular meal--a lovely and delicate repast nearly ruined by the crude and unnecessary inclusion of another that does nothing but intrude upon all of the fine qualities of the former. It still more or less works--provided that you are able to separate the two in your mind so that the one doesn’t ruin your memories of the other--but it would have been a lot easier to swallow if the chef, writer-director Nora Ephron--had simply left well enough alone and stuck with her stronger dish. (By the way, I am really going to try to keep the food-related wordplay to a minimum from this point on--it is undeniably catchy but the fact that most of it is pretty lame and nearly every other critic worth his or her salt--sorry--is doubtlessly going to be trying it suggests that it would be best to move in a different direction.

The first portion of the film is set in 2002 and stars Amy Adams as Julie Powell, a failed writer who mans a cubicle at a 9/11 relief agency while watching all of her friends going about being hugely successful in their professional lives. After turning 30 and having nothing to show for it in her life than an incredibly patient, loving and understanding husband (Chris Messina), she hits upon an idea that she believes will help bring some kind of focus to her life--over the course of one year, the semi-foodie will cook every single one of the 524 recipes found in Julia Child’s landmark 1961 cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” from within the cramped kitchen of her Brooklyn apartment and blog about the experience. Of course, the course of preparing these courses (again, I am sorry) doesn’t run smooth and over the course of time, Julie deals with flattened soufflés, messy floors and the possibility that no one out there either knows or cares about what she has dubbed “The Julie/Julia Project” (the billing is presumably so you know who is more important). Of course, there is a happy ending after all towards the climax of the project when a well-placed newspaper article results in a torrent of publishing offers that let Julie know that she is a real writer at last, even though the fact that her main achievement was to slavishly follow the lead of a true pioneer would seem to make her more of the Vanilla Ice of cooking authors than anything else.

The second part of the film features Meryl Streep as Julia Child and as it opens in 1948, she and husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), whom she met when both were doing top-secret government work for the U.S. during the war, have just relocated to Paris where Paul has been posted at the American Embassy. Julia is immediately captivated by her surroundings, especially the food, but when she tries to find cookbooks written in English, she comes up empty., At that point, she decides to learn to cook for real and when a class aimed at the typical housewife fails to inspire her, she bluffs her way into the male-dominated Cordon Bleu school and makes her mark with both her cooking skills and the fearless way that she deploys them. Before long, she befriends a couple of other women with a similar fascination --Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Loisette Berthold (Helen Carey)--who are actually working on putting together a cookbook aimed at making American audiences comfortable with the idea of preparing French cuisine. Julia naturally joins the project and before long, it swells to a 524-recipe behemoth that no publisher will initially put out because of its length and the fact that it will be too daunting for American housewives more comfortable with “The Joy of Cooking” and recipes involving marshmallow fluff. While her personal life takes the expected twists and turns--ranging from the arrival of a sister (Jane Lynch) who is immediately swept off her feet by the wrong man to Paul’s troubles with the HUAC hearings--Julia continues to work on the book and eventually, a publisher is found and it goes on to become one of the most popular and beloved cookbooks ever written.

Be honest--of the two narratives that I have laid out, which one sounds more interesting to you? Unless you name is Julie Powell--and even then, I am not so sure--the winner is clearly the stuff involving Julia Child and the central problem with “Julie & Julia” is that the imbalance between the two is so evident right from the start that it immediately throws things off. Ephron tries to compensate for this by trying to push the notion that Child and Powell are equals with parallel lives based on a shared love of cooking and a determination to convey that love to a wider audience. In the grand scheme of things, that approach doesn’t work here because there is no real comparison between them that can be made with a straight face. On the one hand, Child is a woman whose life would have been fascinating to follow even if she had never become a famous cook and when she wrote her book, she was trying to create something that would convey her passion about the subject of French cooking that would make her readers feel the same way about that she did. By comparison, Powell never comes across as someone who is interested in either cooking or writing--her real goal, it seems, is to come up with the kind of gimmicky blog that will attract enough attention to land her the same kind of publishing deal that she sees being offered to practically everyone around her. When she finally debones that duck and completes the final entry, there is no sense of the triumph or exhilaration of someone who had grown to love preparing food--she seems happier that she has made her deadline and can safely sell the project to publishers and producers.

The schism between the two halves of “Julie & Julia” becomes even more evident when comparing the two lead performances. At this point, it is almost de rigueur to refer to Meryl Streep as being brilliant whenever she appears on the screen and while that may be true to a certain extent, some of those performances do feel a bit overhyped from time to time--while her work in “Doubt,” for example, may have been technically excellent, I have my doubts that it will be regarded quite so highly in the future because she didn’t really bring anything to it that any other talented actress could have done equally well. That said, her performance here as Julia Child is flat-out brilliant, one of the most audacious and entertaining turns of her entire career. Under normal circumstances, a familiar actor playing a familiar figure--especially one with a flamboyant personal style that has grown even more exaggerated in our collective memory over the years--is usually a recipe for disaster as the performers become so consumed with hitting those surface details that they wind up giving us impressions instead of an impression. Streep nails all the flamboyant stuff with ease--she does the best Child impression since the one Dan Aykroyd did in a memorable “SNL” skit (which is excerpted here)--but she also makes her into a real person who remains a character without tripping over into caricature. (Her scenes with the equally well-cast Tucci are especially good in this regard--they are scarily convincing as a married couple who still find each other irresistible without being irritating about it. By comparison, Adams, normally one of the most instantly appealing actresses working today, comes across here as little more than a bitter pill not worth swallowing. Granted, the character she is playing is nowhere near as interesting or sympathetic as Julia Child is--she is stuck playing a colorless mope whose activities are supposed to be driving the film but which come across so lifelessly that most viewers will be checking their watches while waiting for Streep to come back.

While the Julia Child material and Streep’s performance are entertaining enough to warrant a recommendation, the other stuff is so dreadfully dull that you wonder why it even exists at all. If I had to guess, I would suspect that Ephron started out trying to do a straightforward adaptation of Powell’s book, realized early on that it didn’t contain the material for a gripping film and went to Child’s book in an effort to fill in the gaps and add some weight to the proceedings. However, once it became evident how much stronger the Child stuff was, you would have thought that Ephron would have recognized that, junked the Powell stuff entirely and just made it entirely about Child. As it is, “Julie & Julia” is half wonderful and half filler about which the kindest thing that you can say is that whenever Adams in on screen, you can safely slip out of your seat in order to hit the admittedly déclassé gourmet tidbits on display at the candy counter--despite the utter lack of gustatory or nutritional value, I suspect that in this case, Julia Child would have approved.

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