Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Cooking And Blogging Your Way To The Top: A Review of Nora Ephron's "Julie and Julia"

I want to start by saying that for all of you who are cooking metaphorically in these muggy, torpid final days until the semester begins, Julie and Julia is the perfect grown-up summer movie. I barely go to the cinema in the summer at all anymore because I don't like movies about kids and animals; I detest all comedies; and high-tech animation leaves me cold. I love movies about super heroes and star fleets, but none of them end happily anymore, and the point seems more to turn every last flicker of interest one has in a utopian future into gold than to tell a story that sticks with and/or moves a person. Compare, for example, the first Terminator movie -- in which we see that we are not doomed to be ruled by machines --with nearly every one that followed that has rescinded that promise.

My point exactly. HOWEVER:

Julie and Julia is fun and witty, and it centers the question of what it takes for a creative woman to realize her ambition. Although Julia's story is haunted by the Cold War and Julie's by the War on Terror, these very serious historical frames are never permitted to cast a daunting shadow over the story. Which makes sense, when you think about it, since life does go on, even in the face of devastating change and loss. The movie tells an intertwined story about Julia Child (aka "The French Chef") and blogger Julie Powell, who vows to cook -- within one year --all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, co-authored by Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck in 1961. As part of this ambitious project, Julie also writes a daily blog about her culinary adventures. Although Julia's brave insouciance in the face of all obstacles stands in contrast to Julie's insecurity and tendency to crumble temporarily in the face of disappointment, that contrast makes it possible to tell a second story about what a third, or third-and-a half, wave feminist might learn from a pre-feminist woman whose choice of career (after a wartime stint in the OSS) was framed and limited by her husband's demanding work as a diplomat. It also makes a gentler, but useful, point that some people are born with courage and confidence, while the rest of us have to learn it. And, as the movie shows, courage and confidence can be learned.

Bloggers and spouses of bloggers will also resonate to Julie's triumphs and trials in the blogosphere: originally believing that she is writing to no one, she gets her first comment, only to find that it is from her mother. Because of her blog, she is uncovered at work when she takes a sick day to re-do her boeuf bourguignon for a food writer who never shows up, an incident which ends in a nasty fight with her husband. "And don't write about this on your blog!" he snarls, as he stomps out the door. Whereas Julia Child knows exactly who she is writing for -- the generic American housewife who wants to cook great food -- Julie has to wait for her audience to find her. Beginning by writing only for herself, picking up an audience is a lucky break from her point of view, but it is also Ephron's comment about a culture where books are secondary to other cultural and literary phenomena. Julie doesn't call herself a "writer" until she has a book contract, but the book is almost an afterthought. The blog is the thing.

Perhaps because of my age, because I resonated to Julia Child's love affair with Paris, and because "The French Chef" was a big figure in my childhood home, I liked the "Julia" part better than the Julie part. But I would also say that Meryl Streep, in addition to inhabiting Child beautifully (only equaled or surpassed this year by Sean Penn as Harvey Milk), played the role with an exuberance that injected the movie with the kind of fun a summer movie should have. The Julie role didn't offer Amy Adams as much substance, I'm afraid, although she did have her moments: killing the lobsters was particularly fine. I would also say post-9/11 New York offers a poor contrast to post-World War II Paris: in fact the comparison is downright depressing, for those of us who grew up in fin de siecle New York. The Childs are living in the heart of a revivified cultural capital, whereas the Powells are pushed into the margins (Queens) of a metropolis still reeling from a devastating terrorist attack. They acquire a slightly less cramped living space over a pizza parlor for a rent they can afford at the cost of leaving Manhattan, which is where writers should be. This contrast in the urban space available to these two creative women is something the movie introduces and then makes little of in Julie's part of the movie. Julia's Paris, on the other hand, is dripping with sensory delights. What would have tweaked this theme successfully, in my view, would have been for the movie to note that many of the world's great cuisines are currently flourishing right outside Julie's door. Queens is not just where white refugees of the rent wars go to live, but where throngs of migrants from Asia, Africa Latin America, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent make their first American homes and -- importantly -- open new restaurants. And yet the movie makes no gesture that anyone but two white newlyweds live in this vibrant borough. In the face of this, Julie's nostalgia for a style of French cuisine that caused the audience to gain weight just watching the movie was merely quaint by comparison to the adventurousness of Child's challenge to America's boil, bake and fry culture in the 1950s and 1960s.

But this is a minor quibble, and asks you to take the movie far more seriously than any summer movie should take itself. I haven't even told you how wonderful Stanley Tucci is as diplomat Paul Child, or that the portrait of their marriage causes one to leave the theater yearning to be a better spouse than one has been in the past. And the stumbles in the Powell marriage remind us that we aren't better spouses sometimes because being selfish, mean and impatient with those we love are stops along the way to being the supportive loving folk we aspire to be.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great post. I saw the movie last night, and it was a real treat. I had the same thought about Meryl Streep embodying Julia Child, akin to Sean Penn's portrayal of Harvey Milk.

Lesboprof said...

My partner and I saw the movie and loved it, especially the two relationships between the women and their husbands. Julie also reminded me a little of our (white, middle/upper class) students soon after they graduate and realize that adult (post-college) life is more complex, disappointing, and confusing than they had originally expected. It also is heartening that Julie still triumphs in the end, even when she doesn't get the reception she wants from some folks (trying to avoid spoilers)...

Nice review!

Stephany said...

Thanks for the review.

Liz in Ypsilanti said...

As we left the theater last Saturday night, my husband, our friend the professed religious (nun), and I commented that this was the second good movie we'd seen this summer that presented marriage in an adult way; the other movie, of course, being "UP." I loved the "Star Trek" movie and saw it (with my friend the nun) twice, but these other two movies really resonated. As someone who had to deal with the disappointment of childlessness, both movies brought on tears at certain points, but in both movies, the issue was handled with loving sensitivity.

gspotmagazine said...

Great review of a great movie. I LOVED this film - it reminded me of why I went to culinary school. I think Liz makes a good comparison of this film to "Up," which was also fantastic. I haven't seen a great movie in a long time, but both of those films will be on my shelf when the DVD comes out.

movie links said...

Well, i most join the others - even though some sweetness around the plot - this is a GREAT movie that you can see again and again..Because of Meryl Streep of course:)