Thursday, August 6, 2009

Julie & Julia (2009)

The problem with Julie & Julia is right there in the title. As the movie unspools, splitting its attention nearly equally between Meryl Streep playing Julia Child and Amy Adams playing Julie Powell, a blogger who cooks her way through Child’s cookbook, it’s clear the move is hopelessly unbalanced. Streep is splendid, given a great subject compassionately written. Adams, on the other hand, though not appreciably a lesser talent than Streep, is given less depth and superficial scenes. It’s hard work to make the naturally charming Adams seem whiny and unlikable but it has happened here.

Nora Ephron navigates between the two stories with a deft sense of pacing. The look of the film is slickly uninteresting, even the meals, which are attractive without ever becoming sumptuous, but Ephron isn’t a visual stylist. She places the film squarely in the performers and the dialogue she has written for them. Both women have been given half-formed characterizations, as a result of cramming two features into two hours. Amy Adams is a great actress, but this film shows that she may be only as good as the material she’s given. Julie Powell comes across here as thin and shallow, whiny and nagging. When she complains about her job at a call center for those affected by 9/11, it rings false. What would she expect from that job other than complaints and sob stories? If not for Chris Messina as Mr. Powell, the Julie portions would be nearly charmless.

Meryl Streep, though, has a way of getting so deep within her characters that we quickly forget that we are watching great acting and find ourselves thinking of only the character. Here she’s carefully shot to appear taller; her voice is a beautifully melodious symphony that starts as an impersonation but ends up as the voice of a fully realized character. Her husband, the always wonderful Stanley Tucci, is an added boost of charm. The Child’s are splendidly in love, experiencing a continuing love affair with each other as well as with food. The love of fun and food is palpable. They’re surrounded by interesting, funny characters as well, creating a warm and rich texture. There are culinary teachers, book editors, Julia’s cookbook collaborators, and a scene-stealing Jane Lynch, as Julia’s sister, who has one of the best character introductions of the year. To see Lynch and Streep, overjoyed to see one another, cavort and carry-on in a train station gave me one of the widest smiles I’ve had at the movies in a while. The Childs’ half of the film is a continual delight interrupted only by returns to the Powells’.

The two women’s stories are connected by their writing. Julia’s story follows her game-changing cookbook from genesis to publication. Julie’s story follows her blog project – to cook through all of Child’s recipes in one year – from creation to completion. I realize I’m writing these words on a blog but it must be said that comparing Julia’s book to Julie’s blog is nothing but an unfavorable comparison. Julia’s cookbook has the weight of history; its writing feels momentous. Julie’s blog, on the other hand, feels slight and frivolous, nothing more than an outlet for a wannabe writer. She wines her way through her project, complaining every step of the way, with the exception of the times she pauses to say “yum.” As presented in the film, her story is unexciting and uninvolving, though the talents of Adams and Messina make it often casually entertaining, if never able to make us truly care about Powell. It’s never more than a watery TV-movie quality plotline, a pleasantly watchable one with a bad aftertaste. The juxtaposition inherent in the structure enhances the uselessness of Powell’s half. How are we supposed to care about deboning a duck when the Child’s are being investigated by McCarthy?

So we have half a fine film, and one of the oddest recommendations I’ve ever written. Sure, the film is undercooked by half, but the half that’s done is well done. Streep gives a great performance in a half-film that’s so well done it made me wish that this was a straightforward Julia Child biopic. But this isn’t Julia, its Julie & Julia. And there’s the problem. But Streep is so contagious in her enthusiastic portrayal the movie is worth seeing without being a must-see.

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