JULIE & JULIA: Life, Better with Butter

By Peg Aloi

Julie & Julia – 2009 – dir. Nora Ephron

Julie & Julia, the popular and well-loved film about a young New Yorker’s attempt to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year, would be far less entrancing if writer-director Nora Ephron had not decided to include a witty and rollicking chronicle of Child’s adventures in Paris and her slow journey towards becoming one of the world’s most recognizable chefs.

Ephron wisely bases half the film on Child’s own memoir, “My Life in France”, which was co-written with her grand nephew Alex Prudhomme. The film begins with Julia (Meryl Streep)  and husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) arriving in Paris, where Paul has a government job. It’s the dawn of the McCarthy era, but their first years there are a decadent delight. They have a loving, good-humored, respectful and downright hot marriage, played to nuanced perfection by Streep and Tucci. Child spends her days delighting in the sensual pleasures of street markets, Le Cordon Bleu ( which means “The Blue Ribbon”), the premier culinary institute of France, and one where few women had ever studied until that point. She later teams up with two friends with whom she eventually co-authors her famous 1961 cookbook.

That book is the catalyst for the other half of this film’s story, with both sharing about equal screen time. In 2002, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a 29-year old liberal arts grad who can’t finish her first novel, stuck in a demanding, draining job answering phones for insurance claims for 9-11 victims’ families. Husband Eric (Chris Messina from “Six Feet Under” and “Away We Go”) suggests Julie take on a project involving cooking, and, inspired by Julia Child’s recipes and by the internet adventures of her far more successful and lucratively-employed friends, embarks on a blogging project that involves cooking her way through Child’s cookbook in one year. In their tiny Queens apartment, no less, which is probably just slightly larger than Child’s famous Cambridge kitchen.

The ‘Julie’ portion of the story ends up being the sort of syrupy, clever, feel-good material audiences have come to expect from Ephron (whose last writing-directing effort was Bewitched). We just know that Julie’s journey will be fraught with difficulty, but also full of delightful epiphanies and happy accidents. Adams has just the right amount of annoying perkiness and pathos she does so well, and when Julie’s blog begins to gain popularity, Eric’s accusation of narcissism is reflected in Adams’ righteous indignation. Based in part on Julie Powell’s own book and blog, Ephron’s screenplay is at times too pat and twee, and deals with some events rather implausibly, such as the day when a New York Times article about Powell prompts 65 voicemail messages from various publishers, TV and film producers, and literary agents. Okay, maybe, but since when do such people make contact via phone and not email, especially when the hot property is a blogger? Then again, if veracity had been served in this instance, we wouldn’t have the scene where Julie and Eric make love while listening to all those callers offering Julie the world on a plate.

It’s the ‘Julia’ part of the film that enchants and entertains with real vigor and wit, and of course this is in no small part due to the always adept Meryl Streep. She inhabits the big-boned, 6’2″ Child with uncanny perfection, at times so closely imitating Child’s bulk and spastic but graceful movements that my mouth dropped open. And that voice! Part chorus of baby owls, part expatriate libertine, part clownish voluptuary. Streep exquisitely captures Child’s exaggerated, rounded vowels and tendency to leap in pitch to an unlikely high register, which, given her size, felt more like falsetto than soprano. It would have been very easy to overdo it in a role based largely on impersonation. But Streep never truly ‘becomes’ the characters she plays, despite her skill with accents and physical transformation; her own looks and being are too unique for such a total immersion. In this way, Streep’s Julia Child is not a carbon copy but a sort of artistic reproduction, with its own personalized brushstrokes and shading. And as she is portrayed here, Child was a larger-than-life work of art, ungainly and outrageous as she was. Streep’s chemistry with Tucci is also a treat to watch, and the rest of the actors populating Child’s days in Europe and, later, Cambridge, MA, are very fine. Jane Lynch has an effervescent cameo as Julia’s sister Dorothy, and their affectionate physicality is a high point of the film. Former Vogue film critic Joan Juliet Buck has a great cameo as the dour, elitist owner of Le Cordon Bleu, Madame Bressart, and I really enjoyed Linda Emond  and Helen Carey as Julia’s collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.

But it may be fair to say that the real star turn in this film is the food itself. There’s not the tactile sensuality of Like Water for Chocolate or Tampopo, but the idea of food is given real weight and joie de vivre. Bouef Bourgignon, buerre blanc, beef aspic, Bavarian Raspberry Cream, roasted chicken, the list goes on, and leaves susceptible viewers (like me) with an insatiable urge to stop by the market and cook something simple but sublime for dinner. And one thing the films does very well is demonstrate that a passion for cooking and a desire to master some of its tricks is something that can illuminate the most humble existence. I think of how many lives were touched by Child’s books and television show; she brought cooking back to a nation enamored of convenience foods. For both Julia and Julie, food is the vehicle for growth and change, and ultimately for recognition. I was slightly annoyed, however, that both women only embarked on their biggest achievements at the urging of their husbands; it’s Paul who suggests that Julia should be on television, and unbelievably, Eric has to help Julie set up her blogspot website; a more Luddite-friendly site you could not imagine, so what gives? She can’t read simple instructions that read more or less like, oh, I dunno, a recipe? Really? Even in the kitchen, it seems, women need men to advance.

The film is not perfect, and I’d have liked to see some scenes that are strangely absent. We learn that the real Julia Child (age 90 at the time) is aware of Julie’s blog, but beyond a journalist’s comment that she was “being a bit of a pill about it” we don’t get a real sense of her response to Powell’s project. We see Julia’s Cambridge kitchen, but not her first foray into television, which might have been hilarious; although some wonderfully crafted ‘archival’ footage with Streep doing a spot-on re-creation more than makes up for this absence, perhaps, as does the partial showing of Dan Ackroyd’s sublime turn as Child in the now-famous Saturday Night Live sketch. Perhaps it’s best we only saw Child in those early years, before she emerged as an international icon and a subject for loving imitation and parody. In addition to its letter-perfect performances, and flawlessly-authentic period sets and costumes, this film has a depth of heart that the screenplay’s minor flaws can’t eradicate. Julie and Julia intimately explores the idea of food as something simple, universal and ultimately transformative, that can unexpectedly elevate body and soul.

Andrea O Written by: