Julie & Julia was marketed as a "feel-good" movie - an automatic turn-off for me. I don't go to movies in
order to feel good about myself or others; I go because I'm interested
in the different, diverse ways that filmmakers see the world.
One might not think of Nora Ephron as a writer/director famed for probing insight into the human condition; but in Julie &
Julia, she has captured the parallel stories of two women from different
eras and backgrounds who sought to define themselves - and succeeded.
The movie is, as the opening credits state, "based on two true stories,"
and the film's factual basis makes the achievements of the protagonists
even more effective. More than anything else, though, the film
is a testament to the allure of fine food - and it made me want to
The two stories are those of
Julia Child from about 1949 to 1960, and Julie Powell circa 2002-2003.
Child (Meryl Streep) and her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), are transferred
to Paris as a result of Paul's work for the US State Department.
Her love of food and desire to work lead her to take courses at the
famous Cordon Bleu. Child then makes the acquaintance of Simone
Beck and Louisette Bertholle, whose cookbook project she rewrites and,
after many false starts, is finally able to publish as Mastering
the Art of French Cooking.
Half a century on, Julie Powell
(Amy Adams) is a young cubicle-bound cog for the Lower Manhattan Development
Corporation, taking calls from people who have been affected by the
September 11th terrorist attacks. It's a depressing
job, and she desperately needs a creative outlet. Julie challenges
herself to cook each of the 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic book
within one year, while chronicling her progress in a blog. Her
blog gains a readership, she completes the project, and Julie winds
up a minor media celebrity with a book deal and, ultimately, a movie.
Nora Ephron's parallel adaptations
(of Powell's Julie & Julia and Child's My Life in
France) highlight the similarities shared by the two women, and
their need to express themselves. Although one could argue that
Child's final "product" was distinguished by a sort of individual
genius, and that Powell's was merely derivative, the circumstances
and conditions faced by each require honest comparison, and that's
something that Ephron portrays well. Child was immersed in Paris
in the 1950s - an utter dreamland if there ever was one, not to mention
the fact that her husband enjoyed a high-profile position with the State
Department. Besides which, Child's own background was comfortable.
Powell, on the other hand, was married to a magazine editor, and was
herself stuck in a deadening job that was necessary to maintain a livelihood.
They lived in a fair-to-middling apartment in Queens with a tiny cage-like
kitchen. Ephron avoids any sermonizing about Julie and Julia's
relative circumstances, but the differences are vividly portrayed and
the point is made.
Alongside Ephron's steady
handling of Julie & Julia's core themes, the movie is carried
by the lead performances. As one would expect, Streep goes well
beyond an impersonation. While there is marvelous technical work
done to make 5'6" Streep appear closer to Child's larger 6'2"
frame, the actress invests her performance with energy, whimsy, and
a convincing love of food. Enthusiasm is hard to fake - not
that Streep's work could ever be fairly called "fake" - but
Streep's acting here carries a viewer along on a wave of Child-like
joie de vivre.
Adams holds her own as Julie
Powell, taking a character that could have easily come off as unpalatably
self-absorbed and transforming her into a full-bodied human being who,
despite her faults, is driven by an understandable desire to bolster
her sense of self-worth. As detailed in her upcoming book, there
are aspects of the real Powell's biography that, had they been included,
would have utterly destroyed Adams' characterization; those bits were
wisely left out of the picture's time frame.
As Paul Child, Stanley Tucci
lends his dependable energy and effervescence in a subdued role that
nevertheless provides important, loving, amused support for Julia's
Julie & Julia is
a testament to the power of food - its subtleties and varied richness
- as embodied by Julia Child's seminal book on French cuisine.
Whereas Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking
was more encyclopedic than instructive or artful, Child's book embraced
the finer points of cooking, treating each ingredient with respect and
close attention, handling recipes with finesse, as if they were each
a puzzle to be unlocked by the dedicated chef. Ephron understands
this, as did Child, and this film is her legacy transmitted for another
generation. If nothing else, this vivacious film will spark the
interest of anyone with the least interest in food to go to the kitchen
and appraise its potential anew.
A solid enhanced 1.78:1 transfer
recreates the lighting and photography approaches for the film's two
eras with excellent fidelity. Paris is lit glowingly, with period
sets and costumes hitting the mark - they aren't too showy, not
overly glamorous, just touching the right semi-romanticized note.
Powell's New York is grittier and darker overall, and more realistic.
Her tiny kitchen is filled with a sort of love, however, as if the glow
of Child's Paris has taken up residence there. It's a very
good transfer of a film with a subtle, detailed visual style.
A good, if not terribly active 5.1 surround track is featured.
There's nothing earth-shattering about it, but its clarity and solid
delivery of dialogue and key sound effects can't be argued with.
Unfortunately, the overly-sappy and too-loud score by Alexandre Desplat
can and should be argued with. It's one of the movie's few
consistent weak points.
There are just a couple of extras here, but they are good ones.
First is a commentary track with writer/director Nora Ephron,
who goes into detail about all aspects of the production; it's well
worth a listen for those interested in going beyond the feature.
Also informative is the half-hour Special Ingredients: Creating
Julie & Julia, a very good making-of piece.
Julie & Julia is
an excellent film for two primary reasons. First, it's carefully
written and directed, and features excellent performances. Second,
it passes on the makers' enthusiasm of its subject matter to the viewer.
I can't imagine anyone who likes this movie not rushing out to look
up Julia Child's two-volume masterpiece - which, when all is said
and done, is the beginning and end of Julie & Julia.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.