Movie Review: Julie & Julia (8/8/09)

 

Julie and Julia Movie Poster
Julie & Julia

Directed and written by Nora Ephron

Julia Child – Meryl Streep
Julie Powell – Amy Adams
Paul Child – Stanley Tucci
Eric Powell – Chris Messina

CLR Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Still: Julie and Julia

An Unconventional Romance

Nora Ephron’s film Julie & Julia is a romantic comedy. It isn’t, however, about love between men and women. Certainly, marriage and relationships play a part in the film, but the real romance is between the protagonists and the food they so adore. The film is based on a book by blogger Julie Powell, who in 2002 documented her experiences chopping, filleting, and braising her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The movie draws seamless parallels between Julie (Amy Adams) in Queens in 2002, and Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in Paris in 1949. A garden of culinary delights, Julie & Julia lovingly embraces French cuisine, the inconstant nature of everyday life and the comfort inherent in good food.

The movie begins with Julia Child’s move to a French chalet in 1949. Her love of France and experiencing a new lifestyle is tangible. The only hindrance is this: she cannot figure out what she should do. She tries such mundane preoccupations as hat making, bridge, and French lessons. Finally her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), asks, “What is it that you really like to do?” “Eat!” Julia responds. So begins her schooling at the Cordon Bleu. When the women’s class proves to be too elementary (“how to boil an egg” is the first lesson), she asks to be admitted to an advanced class. The headmistress of the school expresses disdain: “It is full of men, professional cooks, which I am sure you will never be.” Sensing a challenge, Julia enrolls and soon overtakes her male counterparts.

In 2002, Julie Powell is working for the Lower Manhattan Development Company, trying to help reconstruct lives and aid survivors and their families following the 9/11 World Trade Center tragedy. She is about to turn 30, has abandoned the novel she meant to write, and her friends far surpass her in monetary success. Downtrodden and miserable, Julie begins a year-long endeavor to conquer Julia Child’s 524-recipe Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Through thick, thin, boeuf bourguignon, aspics (“beef-flavored jello molds”), tortes, mousses, and colossal meltdowns, Julie’s life begins to improve as, back in 1949, Child strives to publish her famous cookbook.

In a post-WWII, pre-second wave feminism, men headed restaurant kitchens and women were expected to make simple, down-home meals to please their families (i.e. Baked Alaska in a Flowerpot, Marshmallow Fluff). Child’s opposition to such ordinary dishes and her persistence in learning new and different ways to cook made her a world-renowned chef. Her independence, persistence, and talent made her an icon to women across the country. Her obvious love for food, her warm, charming personality, and her rather strange appearance made her a household fixture. Powell viewed Child’s accomplishments as an inspiration—and inspired the blogosphere (and now movie audiences) to do the same.

 

Meryl Streep’s performance is impeccable. She took Child’s odd mannerisms, accent, and joyful persona and ran with them, creating a character viewers will want to hug. Child was 6’2” tall; Streep wore lifts throughout the film, and the set design promotes her largeness. Playing Julia’s sister Dorothy, Jane Lynch (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) is charming as usual, even on stilt shoes and working next to the force of nature that is Streep. Julia and Dorothy were both extremely tall and married men shorter than they were. Though this is played for comedic effect, it enhances the message that women are not necessarily meant to fit into meek, diminutive, stereotypical housewife roles.

Amy Adams’s Julie rather pales in comparison to Streep as Julia, but Julie is alternately lovable and a little obnoxious—traits with which most women will identify immediately. Powell’s honesty and self-deprecation make her a great subject for such a confessional, and her sheer love of cooking (through burned stew, collapsed aspics, and culinary masterpieces alike) is relatable to anyone who’s ever experimented with adventuresome gastronomy.

Streep, Adams, Tucci, Lynch, and Mary Lynn Rajskub (playing Julie’s friend Sarah) are an impressive group of actors. Each takes his or her role to the expected level. Particularly, Streep and Tucci have great chemistry: they truly seem to enjoy each other, creating one of the sweetest, most functional marriages in recent film. Rajskub’s dry delivery brings laughter to off-moments. Though Julie Powell and Julia Child share no screen time together, the seamless editing and transitions create a film through which parallel storylines weave discreetly and intertwining eras of American history are drawn together.

Although the film focuses on Julie’s relationship with husband Eric and Julia’s loving marriage to Paul, this movie is not about conventional romance. In fact, throughout the film both women occasionally shirk their husbands’ affections in favor of their ovens and cutting boards. Child’s name and her recipes are a household fixture in the U.S., and Powell managed to pull herself out of a rut by following in the footsteps of one of America’s most intriguing female figures. In the last scene of the film, Julie says to Eric, “She saved me.” Eric responds, “You saved yourself.” This, more than anything, is truly significant: feminine strength and passion are a force to be reckoned with—and balancing personal aspirations with blissful relationships is more than possible: it’s worth the struggle. Julie & Julia is a valentine to female independence, an ode to striving for what you truly enjoy.

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