The Motion/Captured Review: ‘Julie & Julia’ offers simple story of self-definition

08.10.09 8 years ago

AP Photo/Sony Pictures,Jonathan Wenk

Nora Ephron has made a long and successful career out of making films I don’t much care for, and more power to her. 

Honestly, probably the film she directed that I most liked before this was “This Is My Life,” her early ’90s debut.  Her work before that as a writer, I’m a little more fond of, like “My Blue Heaven” or “When Harry Met Sally” or, most notably, “Heartburn,” an affable if not entirely successful film based on her own real life.  It’s not that I hate her movies… “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless In Seattle” seem entirely successful at what they try to do.  It’s more that I’m not buying what she’s selling.  I think she botched “Bewitched” something fierce, which baffles me.  It’s such an easy premise to get right, such a potent comedy metaphor for marriage. 

So when I sat down for “Julie & Julia,” I had pretty much no expectations.  And I walked away pretty much completely satisfied with the movie, despite a few reservations, and surprised by the ways in which the film pleased me.

What struck me most is how deftly it avoids formula to tell what ultimately turns out to be a very simple and direct story.  Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams, deglammed as much as possible) works in a government office, frustrated by her failure to complete anything in her professional life.  She started a novel at one point, and writing is her ambition, but she’s never found a project that she was able to bring to fruition.  Her one real love aside from writing is cooking, and in particular, she finds herself drawn to the writing of Julia Child.  When she gets the idea to start a blog, a project where she will cook every single recipe in Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in a year.  That blog is still online, and I like how the version in the film looks exactly the same.  Simple detail, but I’m often surprised how Hollywood insists on changing things just for the sake of changing them.

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The film intercuts Julie’s story with the story of Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) during their time in France, when Julia first learned to cook, and it’s the Julia Child material that edges this film close to greatness.  I’m not one of those people who worship Meryl Streep as a knee-jerk impulse, but I think she is a wonderful actress, obviously, and has been for most of my conscious life.  In recent years, though, something’s changed.  She’s tapped into some private joy that she has started communicating with her work, and as a result, it really feels like each and every performance from her these days is a gift.  She’s having just as much infectious fun in her work as Johnny Depp seems to be having in his, but she pulls it off with subtlety and grace.  Child was one of the most preposterous figures in pop culture, eleven feet tall and with a voice like a drag queen sucking helium, and what turned all of that into an asset instead of a failure was the pure pleasure she took in what she did, how cooking was a celebration, not a task.  Like many people my age, one of the most indelible images I have of Julia Child isn’t of the real her, but rather of a parody of her, and I was pleased to see Nora Ephron find a way to sneak that Dan Aykroyd footage into the movie, acknowledging the way Julia’s image grew even bigger than her.  Streep’s work her is transformative.  I don’t see Streep at all.  She simply shrugs on this big strange woman like a second skin, and in doing so, I’m guessing she locks up her 847th Oscar nomination, and deservedly.  Julia travels with her husband Paul, who works in government service, and there’s some unspoken sadness that they seem to be running from.  A miscarriage or the inability to have kids, I’m guessing, based on the hints the film drops.  Julia wants to learn to do something, wants to be productive, and she gets the idea to learn how to cook real French food.  Once she masters that, she meets two women, Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey) who are working on an English-language French cookbook, the first of its kind, and Child ends up joining them in the task, which becomes her life’s work.  I love how she follows her passions, eventually turning her interests into her work.  There is a specific satisfaction that comes from being able to monetize the things that make you happy, being able to somehow convince people to do the things you’d do anyway, and watching Julia learn who she is is the film’s greatest pleasure.

The Amy Adams half of the film seems to be less successful overall, but there are still things about it that I find very interesting.  Nora Ephron, thanks to this film and “You’ve Got Mail,” has emerged as one of the few filmmakers who seems to be actively chronicling the way the Internet is changing us socially.  I don’t think anyone’s captured the lifestyle of a blogger on film until now, and the little ways they get it right impressed me.  The late nights, the need for feedback, the vampire effect it has on the rest of your life as you start to mine your friends and your family for material without even meaning to.  Chris Messina (who was so good in “Away We Go” earlier in the summer) has a tough role to play as Julie’s put-upon husband, but he still manages to hit a few grace notes as he struggles to make room for this new part of their lives that seems like it’s going to swallow everything else completely.  What they never quite nail down is the relationship that Julie has with Julia as a role model.  She talks about her a lot, and it’s obvious that she’s a major figure in Julie’s inner life, but defining that relationship never quite comes into focus, and that works against Adams as a performer.  The closest the film comes to nailing down the relationship is late in the film, when Julie learns that Julia made disparaging comments about her blog and the project, and she has to simply shrug it off.  One of the biggest moments someone can have is when they come face to face with someone who has had a profound influence on them, personally or professionally, only to be disappointed or let down or upset by the encounter.  How you handle that disappointment defines you, I think.  Julie could respond in kind, personalizing things and deciding to trash the entire project, but instead, she just sets it aside, realizing that the Julia she’s created for herself out of the books and the TV shows and the public appearances is what really matters.  That’s what she uses for daily inspiration, and the opinion of one old woman, no matter who that is, should never be enough to derail her.  There are artistic heroes of mine who have been profound disappointments when I’ve met them, and if I let that ruin all the art I love, I suspect eventually I’d find myself unable to enjoy anything much at all.

Nora Ephron’s fairly invisible in the movie, which is, I think, something that suits her well, and I don’t mean that as an insult at all.  It’s the opposite.  I think this movie moves past artifice in its best moments, and because it’s not buried in signifiers like the “falling in love” montage and the oh-so-clever soundtrack cues, all the things which seem to have become ossified in the modern romantic comedy genre.  Ephron has committed many of those sins in the past, and obviously there is an audience that enjoys that.  Me, I like this more direct, more emotionally honest Ephron, and although I don’t think “Julie & Julia” is without flaws, what great recipe ever is?  It is in the small imperfections that the character of the chef stand revealed, and in this case, I think Ephron comes out smelling like roses.

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