Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie and Julia

By Elise Nakhnikian

Meryl Streep has played some amazing women in her time, but none more gallant than Julia Child, the gentle giant who demystified French cooking for Americans. A great soul in an ungainly body who refused to let other people define or deter her, Child was a pioneer in pearls, a reassuring, empowering, eternally cheerful emissary to the intimidating world of haute cuisine. “No excuses,” she declares in Julie and Julia. “Never apologize. No explanations!”

Until Child marched through the doors of the Cordon Bleu’s professional-level cooking classes, propping them open behind her with her cookbook and her long-lived PBS cooking show, the activity her book identified as “the art of French cooking” was off-limits to American housewives. Not that Child herself ever used the word “housewife,” which was already weighed down by layers of condescension and negative connotations by the early ‘60s, when her first cookbook was published. Instead, she identified her target audience as “servantless American cooks.”

Streep performs another of her astonishing acts of alchemy to become the captivatingly friendly, life-loving prodigy, whooping and warbling her adoration for her devoted husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), her adopted hometown of Paris, her friends, and the food that changes her life. Photos of the actress in character barely hint at how fully she inhabits the part, since so much of the magic is in her voice, her slump-shouldered posture, and the sheer wattage of the joy she projects.

If Streep's part of the movie was all there were of Julie and Julia, it would be the best of Nora Ephron’s feel-good chick flicks (Sleepless in Seattle, When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail). Julia’s full-throated enthusiasms make her excellent company, and her long and happy marriage provides us with the rare treat of a mutually adoring, apparently lusty, almost ordinary-looking middle-aged couple on film.

A foodie from way back, Ephron finds drama in the writing and publication of the seminal book Child cowrote with two Frenchwomen – well, mostly with one, as we learn in dishy detail. And the writer/director's light and sure touch with the emotional rhythms of female bonding (remember Meg Ryan’s friendship with Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle? Or Streep’s with Cher in Silkwood?) does justice to Julia’s rich relationships with other women, including her sister Dorothy, another jolly giant brought memorably to life by the always zesty Jane Lynch.

Watching Julie and Julia, it’s easy to imagine how someone might be so drawn to Julia’s inclusive spirit and rich recipes that she’d want to spend a whole year with her first book. That’s just what the movie’s Julie, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), did, cooking all 524 recipes in 365 days while blogging about the experience. Unfortunately, her story isn’t anywhere near as engaging as Julia’s.

That wouldn’t matter if Julie and Julia didn’t divide its time so evenly between the two. Ephron keeps drawing parallels between them, starting Julia’s part of the story when she’s roughly Julie’s age, a housewife searching for “something to DOOO.” But the often strained comparisons only emphasize how different the anxious, self-involved blogger is from the “great big good fairy,” as Julie describes her idol.

Adams is a charming, emotionally transparent actress, and she works hard to make her character sympathetic, but it's a hopelessly steep slog. Julia’s greatness makes Julie’s concerns seem petty and narcissistic, just as Streep’s sacred monster in The Devil Wears Prada made mincemeat of the aspirations and frustrations of the young woman whose story that movie was supposed to be. Even the cinematographer makes Adams' job harder, bathing Julia in golden rays while confining Julie mostly to her fluorescent-lit cubicle or her dark, overcrowded apartment.

Julia’s main goal was to make a great cuisine accessible to a whole new continent; Julie’s main goals were to beat a friend she didn’t even like at blogging and to prove that she could stick to something for a whole year. Julia has deep friendships and brings out the best in nearly everyone; Julie mostly has frenemies. Julia forges a whole new path to create her brilliant career; Julie works so hard at emulating her role model that she sometimes seems to be trying to become her.

Or to become her best friend, in a creepy, Single White Female kind of way. In a recent New York Times essay, Lucinda Rosenfeld writes about how Facebook and other online social networking are increasingly taking the place of actual conversation. “I understand that the chick flick of the summer is poised to be Julie and Julia, a postmodern biopic/romantic comedy about Julia Child and a modern-day aspiring female chef who worships her,” she says. “Moral of the story: A girl's best friend may be the one she's never met?”

When Streep is on the screen, Julie and Julia is rich with relationships – between Julia and her husband, her friends, her Paris, her food, and the world in general. In Julie’s part of the story, we leave that expansive world for a chilly little planet where a neurotic writer frets about her imaginary friend.

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