Though it differed from what I expected, I thoroughly enjoyed the new movie Julie & Julia. I was psyched for it, having just cooked a big dish of garden fresh Chinese Long Beans for my friends Roger & Sherran on Sunday. Following a week’s worth of media hype about the movie and the glowing reviews for Meryl Streep (and less praise for Amy Adams), I went out on Monday for a premium-priced showing ($9 vs. $7 regular price in Columbus, OH) of the film.
With my home theater system and over 900 DVDs, I don’t go out for movies very often. I usually wait 6 months, buy a used DVD, and get the same audio/visual theater experience (10′ projection image and 7.1 sound from a 2800 watt A/V receiver and a 2500 watt subwoofer), in the comfort (Ekornes Stressless chairs), and convenience (fresh-popped corn with known additives from flavorings and a wide selection of legal beverages – my wine cellar abuts my home theater), of home – at 1/3 the cost for me, plus no additional charge for guests. However, the foodie in me was allured to catch Julie & Julia now.
I grew up inspired by Julia Child on PBS. Her whimsical demeanor delightfully deflated the starched stuffiness of the French cuisine mystique. Combined with my father’s genes and his own love for food and cooking, Julia’s TV presence reinforced my expectations that cooking should be fun and the resulting food would be delicious.
Writer/director Nora Ephron has woven together two memoirs – Julia Child’s story of her cooking and cookbook-writing beginnings in France, and Julie Powell’s year of cooking and blogging her way through Julia’s cookbook – to provide a delightful comparison and contrast of their lives. At the start of their stories, Julie is actually a better cook than was Julia. But Julia’s life was certainly more glamorous and intriguing, with her living the leisure life of an American diplomat’s wife in France, settling into a luxurious Parisian apartment, while Julie and her magazine-writing husband have just upgraded to a 900 square-foot apartment above a NYC Queens pizzeria. Julia’s need to occupy herself leads her from hat-making classes, to bridge lessons, and finally to cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu. Julie needs a release from her 9-to-5 phone-bank job helping NYC’s 911 victims, so commits herself to cook every one of Julia Child’s 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and blog daily about her experience. Both husbands are lovingly supportive, through their own trials, as are their friends. The development of these very different yet similar stories, intertwining 8+ years of Julia’s life and 1 year of Julie’s, carried me along, savoring every scene.
Meryl Streep’s portrayal is absolutely marvelous. I’ve experienced two memorable portrayals by an actress of a celebrity. I recall being mesmerized by Zoe Caldwell’s portrayal of Maria Callas in Master Class on Broadway in 1995. It took all of 30 seconds for Ms. Caldwell to have me believe she was Maria Callas – another notable personality from my high school years – on stage, right in front of me, conducting a master class with aspiring opera singers. Ms. Streep never had me believing she was Julia Child, but her absolute mastery of her craft had me admiring, for the entire 2 hours and 5 minutes, how well she could invoke my fond memories of Julia without ever having me feel she was presenting a caricature of her. And somehow, through the magic of film and the film maker, she always came across as the full 6′ 2″ that Julia Child was, instead of Meryl Streep’s own 5′ 6″, hence never breaking the spell.
I must confess that in the 1980s, I really didn’t like Meryl Streep as an actress, despite friends who swooned over her performances. Several years ago, however, I found my opinions completely reversed over the Metropolitan Opera tenor, Richard Leech. For over a decade, I had seen him perform the role of Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly – and I really didn’t care for him. Then I saw Mr. Leech perform as Romeo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette – and I realized that what made me dislike him all those years was that he portrayed the role of his character so well, he had me believing he was the despicable Pinkerton! In that same sense, Meryl Streep conveyed Julia Child, as she did all the characters that I didn’t like in her earlier films.
While the critics seemed to share my adoration of Ms. Streep’s acting prowess, they were less kind to Amy Adams. I don’t know her work (I’ve seen a couple of movies she’s been in but don’t really recall her), and came to expect little after the reviews of Julie & Julia. Well, I was pleasantly surprised. Since I don’t know Julie Powell, Ms. Adams had different challenges portraying her to me. It’s hard to say why Julie wasn’t as clearly defined or nuanced as Julia. Was it the character (by her own definition, not the goddess on a pedestal that Julia Child is as Julie’s muse), the book, the screenplay/direction, or acting? It’s hard to blame Ms. Adams; she may have played the part perfectly. Certainly, Ms. Adams quickly had me feeling she was Julie and got me sympathetic for her.
But to my real surprise, this wasn’t really a film about food. There aren’t any salivation-generating scenes of irresistibly alluring dishes. Even Julie’s year-long intimidation of her known need to eventually tackle de-boning a duck was laughable to me, given the fact that my father taught me to de-bone not by slitting the skin down the center, as Julia instructs, but to remove the bones through the duck’s vent to retain the skin’s shape and minimize the stitching required to enclose the stuffing.
Julia’s story is initially about learning to cook, but then moves to her years of working with the original authors of the would-be first English-language French cookbook and the re-writes needed to get the magnum opus published for the American housewife audience. Julie’s story is about her self-imposed need to get through preparing Julia’s 524 recipes in 365 days and the affect this quest has on her life and marriage. There are nice insights into the impacts and changes of the times – from the McCarthyism of the 1950s to an unknown’s blogging of today leading to fame and presumed fortune.
More, it’s about two individuals persisting to fulfill their dreams – of maintaining their happy marriages and of completing their self-assigned challenges. In this era in which so many of us require immediate gratification of our desires, Julie’s commitment of a year to complete her task may seem to be a lot. Yet the underlying contrast with Julia’s 8-year work on her cookbook – and celebration of her $250 advance from a publisher – shows how much times have changed.
Julia Child’s efforts made her an icon. Julie Powell’s efforts made her a movie character. It was an enjoyable movie – one that I look forward to seeing again when I buy the used DVD for my collection.