Sunday, August 9, 2009

Julie & Julia

Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia is a cheerful look at the success of two women: Julia Child, the famous cook who brought French cuisine to America, and Julie Powell, the aspiring writer who wrote a blog about cooking the 500-plus recipes in Julia Child’s first cookbook in 365 days.

As Julia Child, Meryl Streep is initially entertaining but ultimately irritating. At first I rather enjoyed Streep’s imitation of the cook famous for her breathy, high-pitched voice and her casual approach to cooking. As the film went on, I just saw Streep overacting and I couldn’t wait for the story to get back to Julie Powell. The parts about Child in Paris, with sets that look too much like period fabrications, as though they’ve never seen any wear, play like a PBS show for kids called Child in Fantasyland – with Streep, and most of the other performers, all exaggerated intonations and gestures, the kind of hyperbolic presentation kids need to get the point. The cooking classes have the same tone as Ratatouille - and I don’t mean to cast aspersions upon that wonderful film; Ratatouille is supposed to be a cartoon fantasy.

Streep fairs best in the parts in which she enacts episodes from her cooking show. I especially liked her commenting about how delicate a maneuver flipping an omelette is and how you can always put it back together if you mess up. That’s the element of Child’s cooking that I appreciated most; she was realistic and never snobby. These TV bits are done more subtly, and that’s when Streep is at her best. In addition, in some silent moments, Streep succeeds in making Julia Child appear before you on screen.

As Julie Powell, Amy Adams is more delightful throughout. Of course, she’s got the advantage because she doesn’t have to impersonate a famous person with distinctive voice and mannerisms. Nevertheless, she comes across as a real person, striving to be a recognized writer. Her struggles with her recipes that lead to meltdowns, sprawled on the kitchen floor, inject more moments of realism into the film. In addition, Adams has a natural style that comes across as more convincing than Streep’s impersonation. Adams keeps you on Powell’s side throughout her challenge, whereas there were times when I just wanted Streep to shut up.

A fun aspect of the film is the presentation of Powell’s blogging experience shown in contrast with Child’s toils with old-fashioned publishing: typing pages on onion skin with carbon paper, stacking them in a manuscript box, and shipping them off to the publisher. Perhaps accurate, unfortunately not representative of the norm, both writers are shown attaining instant success with their ventures, without much adversity in the publishing world. Child thinks it’s a tragedy when she gets turned down by Houghton Mifflin, but she gets quickly snapped up by Knopf. One rejection letter! I wish! Meanwhile, Powell is interviewed by the New York Times and then comes home to 65 phone messages from editors, agents, and produces offering her opportunities. Meanwhile, the film is positive about blogging, suggesting that a blog is a satisfying pursuit for a writer that achieves a real connection with readers. As Powell says, “Like if I didn’t write, they would really be upset.”

The parallel stories are both so rosy and upbeat that minor setbacks are thrown into each so that Streep and Adams have chances to perform a little range. For Streep, it’s having to move from Paris to Marseilles. Tough! For Powell, it’s the contrived hubbie tirade: something to the effect of “You’re so self-centered and all you think about is your cooking and blog! I’m leaving!” Of course, hubbie comes back. Who wouldn’t come back to Amy Adams and all that good food?

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed a lot of this film. I enjoyed Amy Adams, the cooking scenes, and Streep/Child’s cooking show slots, but a lot of Streep’s overacting and her too-perfect relationship with her husband (Stanley Tucci) made me cringe. Despite how easily Child and Powell find success in the publishing world, I still feel the film is well-intended in its presentation of the frustrating pursuit of writing. In regards to the blogging world, it convinced me that blog readers care. Thinking of my friends who write movie blogs, I concluded, “Like if you don’t write, they would really be upset.”


Joel Bocko said...

Except now we're all apparently kids in need of hyperbolic presentation. Everything is so saturated now with the "advertising aesthetic" - the here's a quick glance, let this object represent everything else in your mind approach. The other night I saw Jaws again and admired how Spielberg draws scenes in detail - lets the kids have their private jokes, gives us throwaway details just to amplify the "reality" of pleasurable mundane domesticity (as a relief from the pressures of professionalism and as a value to be threatened by the incursion of the shark), how it seems like characters have long back stories and histories and hidden secrets, some of which come out (like that long Indianapolis speech by Robert Shaw).

And this is all in a movie which could easily have been a long variation on "shark attack!"

And it wasn't just Spielberg - there was a sense back then that audiences wanted a lived-in world onscreen. Now everything's plastic, abbreviated, shorthand, fake - and without the imagination-stimulating possibilities or offscreen excitement of old studio trickery. It's like filmmakers think we live in a world of one-dimensionality, or want to - and maybe they're right (though not about me!). And we're all treated like imaginary kids - because kids themselves aren't this dense and superficial.

That said, I'm always intrigued when I see a mainstream film like this because I see so few - they definitely allow a unique peek into the zeitgeist which I'm usually too embedded in classics to ascertain (plus I don't watch TV anymore and don't live in NYC, where you're bombarded with this stuff). I wonder how long before we rebound from the "shallow" aesthetic which clearly dominates design and entertainment nowadays (a designer recently told as much - it's a conscious thing). It's good in an iPod, not so much in a movie.

Richard Bellamy said...

Wow, MovieMan, thanks for the thoughtful comment. Perhaps you should develop your comment into a longer post on your site. It's full of great but sad thoughts worthy of discussion.

"And it wasn't just Spielberg - there was a sense back then that audiences wanted a lived-in world onscreen."

Well said! We yearn for the "lived-in world onscreen" and discover it so infrequently. Definitely not in this movie. It was such a FANTASY based on two TRUE stories! I never blurt out comments during a movie, but during this one I couldn't resist a cynical, "Oh, yeah, right!"

And that superficiality is found in the previews too. Note - if you don't want to know anything about the upcoming The Lovely Bones, don't watch the preview. It tells THE WHOLE story. You can almost say that you saw the movie if you only saw the preview!

Back again to that "lived-in world" comment - I've noted a couple of recent movies like that. They're like made-for-TV movies that don't put much money or effort into sets.

Joel Bocko said...

I recently did a full post on Jaws, which delves into some of this on my Examiner page - which is linked to from my blog (top right corner). But more from the perspective of what Jaws got right than what latter-day movies get wrong.

Basically movies are trailers today, just long ones. Advertisements for themselves, whatever products are featured, and for a dominant cultural aesthetic of glib shallowness in which adults are basically oversize adolescents with more freedom to consume. The enchroachment of juvenilia has been noted for a long time, but I think the bigger story is the infantalization of supposedly adult entertainment.

Richard Bellamy said...

Right on there, MovieMan. Just go see Transformers for shallowness. As for the "infantalization of supposedly adult entertainment," we've seen that in the recent Oscar nominees and picks for Best Picture. But I would like to see mainstream cinema keep trying. Perhaps some talented directors can pick up the flag and charge boldly into more intelligent mainstream films - and audience members can see that they're smarter than many filmmakers make them out to be. (Well, some are smarter; some aren't.)

Ben Haven said...

Ironically this great discussion is posted on a review of a movie that is about (in a way) blogging gold.

I really agree with you two. That "...lived in world onscreen." can be scary for children to think about somtimes I think. Which may be a possible explaination for the recent drought of imersion. I know that when I was younger and I caught glimpses of good movies, it would almost frighten me to think of a huge, real world outside of the fantasies that we like to believe when we're young. And often movies can be an escape. I almost wouldn't blame film makers for making shallow fantasies if they were less common and less commercial based. At the same time I too feel that it's time for some new intelligent films.

Richard Bellamy said...

Ben - Thanks for the thoughtful comment and for pointing out that irony. Yes, film worlds - little worlds representing larger worlds - can be intimidating to the young - but I think they can open young people's eyes in a positive way. I remember seeing some intense movies when I was young - and I always felt so stimulated by them. But viewers are different. When I was young, I enjoyed reality as entertainment.

There is room in the film world for some shallow fantasies; and I enjoy them. As for this movie, it's not supposed to be a fantasy. It's supposed to be based on two true stories - but it doesn't portray much reality, so that bothers me.

Joel Bocko said...

True; of course what is comforting as a child can be maddening as an adult.

Also, I don't have a problem with escapist fantasies - just wish they could be told with a more realistic texture, instead of this flat ad-aesthetic look (fast cuts, close lens, surface-flashy but bottom-line-generic set design). But of course that would probably subvert the escapist element too much. Still, someone like Spielberg used to be able to situate fantasies in a real world setting - think of all the throwaway domestic details and humorous conversations in E.T. and Close Encounters. I think it could still be done, if mainstream filmmaking wasn't so intellectually lazy (and it's also tiresome how all adults are shown to have the emotional and intellectual maturity of high school students, but that's another point).

Anyway, if there's no realism couldn't we at least have grace and wit though those fantasist films of the 30s had?

Richard Bellamy said...

Thanks for all the comments, MovieMan. I'm with you on everything you say here. What you say about "surface-flashy but bottom-line-generic set design" is so true. It's hard to think of a film this year that invites you to step inside and walk around in it. I find myself going back to older films to get that feeling of being invited into a world of rich textures.

The Film Doctor said...

Thoughtful review. Your favoring of Adams over Streep seems to run counter to many of the other critics' views, who claim that Streep steals the movie. I thought Adams was a little ill-served by the mise en scene. Her milieu seems darker and duller compared to 1950s France. I also found it amusing that Powell would despair over things like a major food critic cancelling a dinner date, but she never seemed to realize that her disasters are blogging gold. It was no doubt the setbacks that helped with the success of the blog.

I also wanted Julie and Julia to meet somehow. It's funny how a nonfiction film still creates the expectations of closure that you only usually get in fiction. The structure of the movie still seemed a little arbitrary.

Richard Bellamy said...

FilmDr - Thanks for the comments. Yes, there's so much more dazzle in the France mise en scene with Julia - but that's the part that I found to be such a visual and storywise fantasy - so I favored Adams and her story because the apartment in the old neighborhood in Queens had much more atmosphere.

Nice thought about Julie meeting Julia. I thought the little bit about Julia being angry about Julie's blog was going to lead to something. I don't know if I could have taken Streep acting as Julia in old age, but I kind of wanted a meeting and this seemed to set that up. But that thread just disappeared.