Movie Review: Julie & Julia (2009)

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Despite the fact that they are separated by more than fifty years in two thematically similar narratives, the presence of both personalities referenced in the title as well as the talented women portraying them linger as the film flows back and forth in time.

Similar to producer Scott Rudin’s film The Hours (also starring Meryl Streep and based on a literary source), Julie & Julia uses time freely and in a circular fashion. Reuniting with not just producer Rudin but her co-star Amy Adams from Doubt (although in this film the two don’t share a scene), Julie's more contemporary plot concerns Adams’ hardworking, highly educated but frustrated failed novelist Julie Powell who moves from Brooklyn to Queens in 2002 while the aftermath of 9/11 is still painfully fresh.

Spending her days in a cubicle alternating from anger to tears of heartache as she takes calls while employed with the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation—Powell discovers that the only solace she receives from a hard day at the office is in the certainty of following a recipe she knows and trusting that she’ll be able to predict the outcome of its resulting comfort food.

Following a disastrous lunch with her group of power hungry friends from college and an embarrassing article about her lack of success as she nears thirty which finds her feeling dissatisfied with herself as a writer, Powell’s loyal husband Eric (Chris Messina) suggests that she should look for an outlet that somehow gives her the artistic release she desperately needs.

As the dawn of the twenty-first century began the rise in popularity of blogging, suddenly Powell realized precisely what she wanted to do. But unlike the flood of vanity blogs filled with random thoughts, gossip, Dear Diary like entries, or items that most of us would never want to read, she put her literary skills to good use and employed an intriguing hook by embarking on a quest to cook all 524 recipes in 365 days contained within the culinary tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

While Powell gets to work on her blog, writer/director Nora Ephron has been deftly weaving us through the simultaneous and similar challenge facing Meryl Streep’s Julia Child who—no stranger to governmental work-- like Powell has also moved and is in search of something to do that will fulfill her on a personal and creative level.

Thus, we follow Streep’s journey as Julia Child from her 1948 arrival in Paris until she eventually channeled her appetite for life and food into the study of cuisine, becoming not just the first American woman to study at Cordon Bleu but to eventually bring her academic pursuits to America with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking which was co-written with Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck.

Easily the greatest actress working today, Streep manages to fully convince us she’s Child within seconds, going beyond that recognizable accent that was made part of our pop culture landscape once more via Dan Akyroyd on Saturday Night Live by fully embracing just how much Child simply loved life and seemed to treasure all those with whom she came into contact.

Moreover, the Child sequences in Paris are far more compelling than any of the material involving Powell. And unfortunately this seems as though it's because, no matter how much you ultimately dress it up—aside from her genuine affection for Child- the blog itself felt like a race-to-the-finish-line style gimmick rather than a true celebration of the overwhelming amount of work that Child put into the book so many who own it take for granted. Of course, this probably was not Powell's intention but for truncated film reasons, that's the way it comes across.

Additionally, despite my admiration for Adams as one of my generation’s most talented actresses, she isn’t given very much with which to work. Basically, Adams' Powell seems to be a pretty narcissistic character especially considering the fact that as evidenced in the script-- not only does it indicate that it’s female driven professional jealousy that drives her to blog but the film also contains a conversation that’s nearly entirely comprised of her character and another agreeing on how much of a bitch Powell is-- as well as another throwaway line that all women hate their friends.

Thus, since the representation of Powell went against the celebration of living life to the fullest and Child’s zest for this manner of being, I kept thinking how much better the movie would’ve been if they’d axed the Julie Powell plot completely and just gone solely with a film about the fascinating Julia Child.

This idea was solidified by the pitch-perfect chemistry that Streep had with her Devil Wears Prada costar Stanley Tucci who portrayed her adoring husband Paul. Able to spark so well together that early into the picture you can actually see Streep blush right through her makeup-- and indeed, according to the production notes from Sony’s Columbia Pictures, Streep suggested Tucci for the role—the two present a refreshing depiction of a true marriage of equals.

Of course they have their troubles and Streep and Tucci are able to bring quiet layers to their work showing private doubts and fears of not fitting in during a few unscripted dialogue-free moments that ordinarily would’ve been left on the cutting room floor. Yet their relationship unlike Julie and Eric’s which mostly consists of grocery buying, food tasting, and disagreements was the one that truly inspired and nourished me as a jaded twenty-first century singleton the way that Child's food and cookbook has nourished countless chefs over the years.

For, they not only support each other through the hard times of feeling less like a man or a woman when he’s interrogated during the McCarthy era and humiliated and likewise as Child is unable to have a child but also in the way they seem to look at each other as though they’re still the only people in the room. And this is evidenced in the cute (yet slightly scandalous) nude bubble bath etc. postcard photos recreated on film that they took to share with others their love and delight in life and each other.

All in all, it's an ambitious and highly literary film that combines not just two works of nonfiction including Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia and Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme’s My Life in France as well as her famous cookbook along with what I can only imagine was endless research in a masterful script by Nora Ephron. Additionally it proves to her harshest critics she’s much more than the queen of the romantic comedies whom they'd had her pegged to be and although the Julie portion of the film made it a bit unbalanced, it’s still highly recommended.

Likewise, given another wondrous turn by Streep and a dynamic supporting performance from Tucci who helps augment our leading lady, I believe that Ephron’s work may be up for some serious awards consideration also given the amazing talent involved behind the scenes from producer Rudin, Benjamin Button and Painted Veil Oscar nominated composer Alexandre Desplat and cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt (Closer, Angels in America, Charlie Wilson’s War, Rent).

However, as a longtime fan of Ephron’s--for this reviewer, the most inspiring and empowering story involved in the production from a female standpoint aside from Ms. Julia Child’s is that of Ms. Nora Ephron’s who—with Julie & Julia seemed to provide a subtextual third character and narrative to the piece of a woman seeking inspiration, something to do, and the right outlet to find herself. To explain-- with this film, Ephron managed to do just that as a filmmaker.

As when it comes to Julia, Ephron has actually created something that looks and feels completely different than any of her other works and at its heart, it’s a film that applauds a woman’s need to find a creative outlet. And while most moviegoers will be caught up fully in the tale of the characters, I was just as invested in the evolution of the woman yelling “action” and the way that somehow she managed to juggle various texts to produce not just a cohesive structure but a mightily impressive and intelligent screenplay at the same time.

For, while I’m sure that the movie will have a tough time battling the testosterone fare of GI Joe, to me the greatest measure of its success would be that-- similar to both Julie and Julia-- if Nora Ephron has finally realized just how valuable, worthwhile and important her work has been to female filmmakers and audience members all along.

And, much like Julia Child trying to fight prejudices and labels against the Americans trying to master French cuisine-- Ephron has battled the Rom-Com label for years. And although her romantic comedies are still the most sophisticated ones I’ve seen in decades, with Julie & Julia she proved that she can leave the genre whenever she wants and meander directly into Rudin territory of literary works without managing to forget to season the work with intelligence, feminism, and wit.

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