Meryl Streep sizzles in Julie & Julia
Amy Adams scrambles to keep up with Streep's Julia Child
Julie Powell’s blog-turned-memoir Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen blended two unlikely ingredients: gourmet cooking and online journaling. The venture originated in 2002 as “The Julie/Julia Project,” with Powell recording her attempt to cook all the recipes in Julia Child’s landmark cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking within a year. Sharing food, like posting a blog entry, can provide a way to connect creatively with people, but otherwise, the two activities seem unrelated.
Julie & Julia's film version equates eating and cooking with living. The movie implies that blogging amounts to a pale imitation of life, but that’s not writer/director Nora Ephron’s aim. The creator of toothless romantic comedies such as Sleepless in Seattle, Ephron offers a well-intentioned chick flick that focuses on food and joie de vivre, rather than the tired tropes of courtship and clothes. In depicting the relationship between two women who never meet, Julie & Julia makes Julie look less like a pupil than a shadow of Julia. It’s like comparing beef bourguignon to marshmallow fluff.
One expects a charisma disparity from the casting of likeably inoffensive Amy Adams as Julie and her Doubt co-star, multiple Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, as Julia. Ephron cuts between Julie toiling in the kitchen and on the keyboard for the blog project between 2002 and 2003, and Julia discovering her own flair for the culinary arts in Paris beginning in 1949. Though happily married to diplomat Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), Julia’s childlessness and restlessness drive her to explore French cooking as a hobby. When she can’t find a French cookbook in English, she enrolls in a rigorous professional cooking class at Le Cordon Bleu. Julia topped 6 feet, so Streep looms around benignly on stilt-like heels, like Gandalf among Gallic hobbits.
Streep clearly adores Julia’s oversized presence, and not just her trademark piping speech patterns, which always sounded like Monty Python imitating the Queen of England. A late bloomer who didn’t study cooking (and may have been a virgin) until her late 30s, Julia proves cheerful, blowsy and slightly ostrich-like. She constantly engages with the people around her and enjoys the pleasures of the boudoir as well as the kitchen. (Judging from the film, she could have written a book called Mastering the Art of French Smoking, too.) If not one of Streep’s most complex performances, her Julia Child thoroughly entertains and conveys a zest for living.
Meanwhile, Julie's life doesn’t seem so bad. She has a loving husband named Eric (Chris Messina), she lives in New York — OK, Queens — and enjoys the comforts of cooking after a hard day. The only downsides are her frustrated literary ambitions and a cube-rat job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., where she takes calls and complaints about post-Sept. 11 settlements. Ephron doesn't draw a connection between Julie’s post-9/11 New York and Julia’s post-WWII France: War apparently never touched the Paris we see in the film.
Julie’s original book provided a charming example of one of those popular, lighthearted stunt memoirs like The Year of Living Biblically. Her first-person narration offered an inside-out perspective of her messy life and notions of her role model. Any film, however, would be restricted to an outside-looking-in point of view. We see Adams’ Julie placed in low-key comic set pieces tasting her first egg, killing live lobsters, and facing her fears of boning a duck. Ephron’s script boils down her blog posts to their most banal observations, like “Is anything better than butter?”
Initially blogging into a void — My God, it was probably dial-up back then! — Julie gradually begins receiving comments, gifts from unknown readers, and requests for media interviews. To her credit, Ephron seems to keep invented, contrived scenes to a minimum. The Julie plot, however, builds minimal dramatic interest, apart from her occasional meltdowns at the stove. Adams seems to be the wrong choice for the film’s idea of Julie. At one point, she and her best pal (“24’s” Mary Lynn Rajskub) agree that Julie's kind of a bitch, when Adams is America’s sweetheart. In another scene, she complains about so much French food making her fat, while Adams looks as trim as ever. (No Toni Collette-in-Muriel’s Wedding weight gain for Adams.) Adams comes across as so Hollywood cute, the role loses its substance.
Plus, the book merely quoted from short letters from the Childs, which offered little windows into Julia’s milieu. The film’s back-and-forth between the two time periods can’t help but make Julie’s experience look trivial by comparison. A half-century earlier, Child travels the world, teaches classes, spends years working on the definitive French cookbook, and weathers publishing industry resistance, while her husband encounters McCarthy-era hostility. The dishes look delicious in either time frame, but audiences may feel a pang of disappointment whenever the film cuts back to the present.
At one point, Eric decries blogging's narcissism, and how Julie’s egg poaching and navel gazing has taken over their marriage. At least Julie’s blog recorded something specific. Given the liveliness of the Julia Child plot, it’s not a stretch to read the film as an implicit indictment of overexamined contemporary lives and the way incessant blogging can filter out genuine experience.
At the Julie & Julia screening, I happened to sit next to my former Creative Loafing colleague Felicia Feaster. In one scene, Paul Child receives a Telex, and I commented, “Telexes were the blogging of the 1950s.”
And Felicia said, “No, living was the blogging of the ’50s.”