The Julie-slash-Julia Project.
The Book: Mastering the Art of French Cooking. First edition, 1961, by Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. And of course, Julia Child, the woman who taught America to cook, and to eat. It's forty years later and no one can touch her.
The Challenge: 365 days. 524 recipes.
The Contender: Julie Powell.
Government employee by day, renegade foodie by night. Risking her marriage, her job and her cat's well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment. How far it will go, no one can say.
...and that's how it started. See, Julie (Amy Adams) has been kinda down lately. Her friends -- who she can barely stand the sight of, so maybe "friend" isn't the right word for 'em -- are negotiating $190 million real estate deals, writing for semi-prestigious rags, and are getting bumped up with unnecessarily long executive vee-pee job titles. Julie, meanwhile, has just been dragged by her husband (Chris Messina) into a dingy 900 sq. ft. apartment over a pizzeria. She wakes up in the morning, slogs through a thankless job answering phones to help families still reeling from 9/11, and trots home to an apartment she can't stand to pal around with her husband and kitty cat. Lather, rinse, repeat. Julie doesn't have much of anything in her life to latch onto and get really excited about, so she dreams up a new routine: work her way through every last recipe in Julia Child's landmark Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blog about it day-by-day. This being a Nora Ephron movie and all, it kinda goes without saying that along the way, Julie's adventure helps her learn about life, love, and...::sniffles!:: herself.
Like the poster art says, though, Julie & Julia is based on two true stories. There's Julie and that year-in-French-cuisine blog she really did start back in 2002, natch, anchored around Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The other half of the equation is...well, how that book wound up being penned in the first place. This is where we cut over to post-war Paris where Julia Child (Meryl Streep) has just found herself transplanted. Julia really isn't the stay-at-home type, and she needs something to do while her devoted husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) is occupied with his position with the U.S. State Department. She takes a stab at a few different things, but eventually it dawns on her: she has an unending love for French cuisine, so why not learn to make it herself? She's eager to dive headfirst into the deep end of the pool too, enrolling in an advanced class at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu institute despite not having any real background in cooking herself. Julia proves to be an excellent student, though, and she quickly feels confident enough to set out as a teacher herself. Back home in the 'States, this sort of food is out of the reach of average folks at home...people who can't afford to have a servant
Really, that's what Julie & Julia found itself criticized for more than anything else when it first splashed into theaters this past summer: that critics were so drawn in by Julia's pluck, optimism, and larger than life personality that her towering frame overshadowed that meek little blogger in the corner there. I have to admit that even though that pesky Y chromosome sets me far outside the target audience for Julie & Julia that I found both halves of the movie incredibly charming. The film isn't quite a Julia Child biopic, choosing instead to aim its focus directly at the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and what had immediately led up to it. I kind of wince whenever I read a movie review that uses a word like "delightful", but...well, that's what these moments are. Nora Ephron takes a light touch with Julia Child, and her half of the film is breezy and almost unrelentingly upbeat. Even though the real-life Julia would be so deeply embedded in popular culture that we all know what a colossal success her love of French cuisine would prove to be, she's so endlessly likeable in Julie & Julia that I found myself rooting for that inevitable outcome just the same. Meryl Streep does a wonderful job adopting Julia's larger-than-life-and-then-some personality and even her distinctive voice. Her zeal for food, her husband, and life in general is infectious, and this radiates from Streep's performance along with an effortless wit and charm. She's a 6'2", walking, talking hug. Tucci puts in a more understated but still strong performance as well, and his chemistry reteaming once again with Streep is remarkable. Bringing in Christopher Guest mainstay Jane Lynch to play Julia's even taller sister is an inspired bit of casting as well.
Although I really do like both halves of the film, it's kind of unavoidable that the stretches with Julie aren't as compelling. I mean, in one corner, you have a magnetic optimist whose devotion and unwavering determination redefined the way Americans looked at cooking at home, and on the other, there's a thirty-year-old in one of the outer boroughs with a desktop PC; of course Julie pales by comparison. Amy Adams does a terrific job with what she's handed, though, and much of the strength of the Julie-centric segments is owed to her charm. Without her in the other leading role, I'd probably have been among the crowd who'd just as soon have opted for a straightahead Julia Child biopic instead. As long as Julie is carving her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, narrating all the way with bloggy voiceovers, her sequences sparkle. From her giddy joy at successfully poaching an egg to frowning at the thought of boiling her first lobster, there's something sweetly fun about
What Julie & Julia isn't nearly as adept at is sprinkling in drama, particularly when it starts swirling around the Powells. I'll admit to finding Amy Adams to be such an unrelentingly adorable ray of sunshine that it's hard to be repulsed by anything she does, and the real-life Julie Powell has been softened a lot for this adaptation. She's not nearly as gruff, salty, or self-centered, and she...oops!...doesn't cheat on her husband like the genuine article did. The bizarre thing is that the screenplay kind of forgets that it's chucked so much of that out the driver's side window but still penalizes her for it. There's an out-of-nowhere fight between Julie and her husband that's supposed to be the driving conflict -- y'know, the old "make up to break up" standby in pretty much every romantic comedy ever -- and it's because Julie's gotten to be such a narcissistic bitch. The thing is that...she's not? I mean, she grouses about living above a pizzeria and sometimes takes her husband a little for granted, but not even a little bit of that struck me as excessive. Julie and a pal of hers even have a conversation about what a self-centered bitch she is, but even though characters in Julie & Julia talk about that sort of thing, we hardly ever see it.
Julie's also startled at one point with a phone call revealing what the then-still-very-much-alive Julia Child thought of her project, and the film makes quite a point of this without ever bothering to explain the rationale. With the obvious exception of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, of course, this is the closest thing to a direct connection between these two stories, and it happens off-screen and seems completely out of step with the Julia Child we're shown. Julie & Julia isn't a short movie, and I understand that something would likely have to go to hover around a two hour runtime, but it seems as if too many key moments were trimmed down further than they should've been. The stretches with Julia are so relaxed by comparison, and the only conflicts are small hurdles that the optimistic Mrs. Child never bothers to obsess over. No apologies. No excuses. The closest these segments come to true drama is Julia's inability to bear children, and this is portrayed marvelously by Meryl Streep: it's understated yet wholly convincing, and she doesn't let this become a dominant theme in her life.
Sure, quite a few people have said that the movie would've been better off it had been Julia & Julia instead. Me, though...? I think melding these two stories together works really well, and I was more than charmed by both of them, although perhaps scaling back the segments in the here-and-now -- keeping Julie Powell as a framing device...someone to cook and to blog but losing all the clunky drama -- likely would've added another shiny blue star in the sidebar over there. It's certainly charming but doesn't dangle the same sort of hook that Meryl Streep does as Julia Child, and it causes the film with its overinflated two hour-plus runtime to drag more than it should. That's okay, though. Julie & Julia is still a charmer. If I knew much more about French cuisine than...well, what little I've picked up here, I'd probably try to work out some kind of food analogy...something light, sweet, and kinda frothy. Whatever dessert analogy I'm awkwardly reaching for, I'm pretty sure it's something I'd like. Recommended.
It'd be hack writing for me to say something like "this high definition presentation of Julie & Julia looks good enough to eat!", so I'll try to resist. This Blu-ray disc really does look fantastic, though. The 1.85:1 image is crisp and dazzlingly detailed. There's a fine sense of texture that's particularly striking, and the cinematography is wonderfully bright and colorful when appropriate. It ought to go without saying that the French cuisine leaps off the screen. There's a quip in one of the extras that Julie & Julia is food porn, and that's really not far off at all. The AVC encode on this BD-50 disc never once sputters or stutters, and the faint sheen of film grain remains intact...wholly unintrusive but still lending the movie a warm, cinematic texture. Julie & Julia looks absolutely gorgeous on Blu-ray, and there's not a single complaint or gripe about this presentation that I can muster.
At its heart, Julie & Julia is a film about two women finding a zeal for life by embracing their passion for cooking. Bass response that threatens to level the foundation of your house...? Hyperaggressive split surrounds...? Nah. Julie & Julia doesn't have any reason to be some sort of spastic sonic assault, but its 24-bit, 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is still effective and complements the material wonderfully. The film's dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly. The lower frequencies reinforce a few effects such as the faint rumble of the subway as well as adding some heft to Alexandre Desplat's playful score. The surrounds flesh out a strong, convincing sense of atmosphere: clacking keys in a cubicle farm, the bustle of the streets of both Paris and New York, trains lurching to a stop, and even the flapping of birds' wings from one channel to the next. It's that sort of color that leaves this lossless soundtrack standing a couple of rungs above most romantic comedies.
Julie & Julia also features a Descriptive Video Service track in English and a six-channel French dub. Subtitles are offered in English (traditional and SDH) and French.
A barrage of high definition trailers rounds out the extras. The disc doesn't feature the original theatrical trailer for Julie & Julia, though.
The Final Word
Julie & Julia is a confection: light, sweet, and airy. It's nothing particularly substantial, no, but to harp on that would be missing the point completely. This is a movie that sets out to be cute and charming, and...well, it is. It's longer than it ought to be, and the stabs at drama tend to miss the mark, but it's still fun and frothy just the same. Julie & Julia has also been lavished with a terrific release on Blu-ray, dishing out a gorgeous high definition presentation and more than a couple helpings of extras. I guess I'm starting to run out of clunky food puns, so I'll end this with a bold, italicized Recommended.
..and a Few More...