Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Julie & Julia

Light and fluffy as a well-made soufflé.

Sometimes, the trailers for movies give away everything about the movie. In the case of this movie, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell, a devoted fan, there really aren't any spoilers for the trailers to reveal. What you see is what you get: two stories intertwined, one about Julia Child struggling to find a goal for her life in France and then fulfilling it and the other about Powell attempting to cook every one of Child's recipes in Learning the Art of French Cooking in a single year. And it should come as no surprise that both principals succeed at the quests they give themselves and with only mild trauma.

Streep's Child is simply fantastic; she seems to embody the easily-caricatured chef so that as we begin to delve into the private life of Child, the one that most people never even considered to exist, we are alternately shocked by her potty mouth and pleased that, deep down, she is really One of Us. Child was an outsider in so many ways in France--tall, American, and distinguished by the nasal voice that has become her signature over the years—and in the Cordon Bleu, the legendary cooking school, she is also a woman. Madame Brassard, the head of the school, plays the stereotypical snooty Frenchman, determined it seems, to keep Julia from succeeding, even though the movie makes it quite clear that everyone that interacts with Child just adores her. The viewer is also given scenes of her achieving some sort of expertise in the culinary arts, but we already knew this about her, or we likely would not have gone to the movie in any case. The period pieces with Child are nearly worshipful, and she really is the heart and soul of the movie.

In modern America, Adams's Powell struggles with far less difficult obstacles: she's nearing 30 and her friends are far more successful than she (if you measure by cell phones), and she feels she has lost the track to fulfilling her potential as a writer. So she starts a blog in order to record her progress with her Julie/Julia Project. Unlike Child, Powell is not universally adored, but then she lives in a harsher time and in a harsher city, New York. But both Child and Powell are blessed with near-perfect husbands who believe in their wives and help to carry them through any obstacles to achieve their goals. Stanley Tucci's Paul Child is, as most roles that Tucci chooses, marvelous. He and Streep share a very strong chemistry on-screen, and he moves the audience with his sardonic wit and protestations of devotion to Julia. Unfortunately, Chris Messina, as Eric Powell, doesn't have the strength in his role that Tucci has in his. But since Adams doesn't have as much power in her role either, they sort of go together, sort of bumbling along through the course of the year. They have a tiff at the crisis point in the movie, and various issues rise up, but they generally handle them with the aplomb reserved for sitcom spouses. However, to say that their chemistry is weaker than Tucci and Streep's is not to say that they are bad in their roles—rather, their roles don't ask much of them, and what they do ask is delivered without as much art as by the other actors.

One might think that the emphasis of the movie is on cooking, but cooking is only the vehicle for the real thrust of the movie, that one should pursue one's dreams with passion and energy. The cooking scenes are stepping stones to each character getting to their ultimate goal. Child is passionate about her cooking and Powell is passionate about cooking Child's recipes and writing about the experience. They both get some luck in their quest, and they both have a few stumbles. But ultimately, Child's quest feels like the more important one, as we are told over and over again how she will change the world with her book. Powell's goal is not quite so selfless, but she chases it undauntingly.

And so, there ends up not much to say about the movie. The highs are not terrifically high, and the lows don't go down very far. While individual incidents are relatively unpredictable, the ultimate destination the movie achieves should come as no surprise, as pointed out ironically by the written coda that has become de rigeur for movies that even come close to biography. I hear and see the term "popcorn movie" used more and more often with action-packed thrillers where the audience is best served by leaving their brains behind at the door to the darkened theater. In many ways, Julie & Julia is also a popcorn movie, minus many multiples of explosions. But it does have one powerful feature those action movies don't: the stellar acting of Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci and their chemistry that lights up the screen.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like I should have gone to see this instead of the dreadful District 9. I can't believe all these "critics" said District 9 was a good movie, Blech!