The prevailing outlook on Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia, based on Julie Powell’s book of the same name (spoiler!) is that the movie suffers from simultaneously exploring the rise of famed cook Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and blogger-turned-superstar Julie Powell (Amy Adams). It feels like two movies awkwardly mashed together with little to tie the two stories together, aside from the fact that both women cook a lot. That, or, despite her best efforts, the cuteness of Amy Adams can’t hide the fact that Powell is played as clearly self-obsessed and therefore unlikeable.
My initial response to these approaches to the film is the urge to take up the mantle of defending the Powell storyline. To be honest, it did strike a chord with me as I am somebody who has recently begun posting on a self-aggrandizing website/blog just as Powell did. GlasgowtotheMovies.com, have you heard of it? Also, as our protagonist agonizes over turning 30 and the feeling of having accomplished little in her life, I’d be lying if I said that similar thoughts have not entered my head at the ripe young age of 25. Not that I haven’t done anything, but rather that I am not doing anything. I’ll admit right now, though, that Powell’s reaction to her aging sometimes feels scary. At her birthday party, she announces that she would not have survived turning thirty if it weren’t for Julia Child and her husband. Really?
That said, once she decides to devote a year of her life to cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the movie wastes no time in embracing those thrilling moments, such as the ‘choosing a theme for your blog’ scene, the ‘writing your first blog post’ scene, and the classic ‘getting a comment on your blog that was not written by your mother’ scene. I relate these moments as though they lack any punch, and I guess that they do, but I couldn’t watch the movie without thinking of my own infant website. And when Powell’s blog inexplicably becomes a sensation, I admit to feeling jealous. How does she deserve it? That question is not one of mere irritation with the author that plays the protagonist of the film, but a criticism of the movie itself. Perhaps it is because the filmmakers were working to shoe-horn two stories into one movie, but Powell’s rise into internet stardom is hardly explained.
Neither is Child’s, come to think of it. She begins cooking, makes friends with the right people, begins writing a cookbook, and suddenly finds herself enjoying fame and fortune. A running theme in the criticism of the film, from the reviews I have read thus far, is that the characters’ reaction to the mouth-watering dishes on display usually amount to little more than a “yum”. We get little sense of the dedication and work that goes into the preparation of the meals that Julie and Julia both create. I think this same issue can be extrapolated to the entire film, as Child creates a mammoth volume of French delicacies simplified for servantless American cooks, but there is practically no attempt at showing the work that goes into it. Instead, all we get is the characters saying “yum” as everything works out for them.
Now, if I were more inclined to jump to the movie’s defense, I might claim that the point of the film is not in the food items that the two women create, but instead in their respective approach to the obstacles that challenged them, and that the importance of Julie’s section is that she learned from Julia how to overcome her fear and self-doubt in order to become a success. Even were this true, the idea is not conveyed in a convincing way. Powell has a couple of what she terms “meltdowns”, but they are short-lived and inconsequential, and she seems to power through it without effort. Dialogue implies that she has put down her ladle for some time, as the pressures of all her responsibilities have piled up on her, but again the movie doesn’t actually show this – or at least, not in any convincing manner.
So many people have already suggested that Julie & Julia would have been so much better if it had been simply Julia. The only reason that that is true is because of Streep’s incredible performance. Is there any question that she is quite possibly the best actress working today? Her stunning work is only aided by Stanley Tucci as Julia’s husband, Paul. They share a wonderful chemistry, both serious people in their professional lives but worry-free and playful when they are together. Actually, a similar chemistry is shared by Adams and Chris Messina, who plays her husband. The husband characters each have little to do in the film, it’s true, but the way that they interact with their wives sometimes seems like enough to make up for their uselessness otherwise.
Again, though, it’s clearly Streep what steals the show. She plays Julia Child with an exuberance and life that absolutely lights up the screen. It might border, slightly, on the cartoonish, but the performance is grounded enough by the sharply serious moments that arrive throughout. While the character often provides the instances of bold comedy, it does not feel out of place for Streep’s Julia to become exasperated and break down in tears. At least her husband, ever understanding, is there to hold her close when things get rough. God, I swear, their relationship is maybe the best thing about the film.
But the movie is not about their relationship. Instead, it’s about Julie Powell’s relationship with Julia Child. Or rather, the relationship she has with the idealized Julia Child that she holds in her head. That relationship is poorly explored and any sense of catharsis or revelation that the movie tries to sell at the end is wholly unearned. I suppose that’s why so many critics see the Powell character as an unbearable touch. Nothing seems learned, and yet Powell has given herself an A+ on the final exam nonetheless. It’s easy to see coming, but when the credits roll it still comes as a surprise.
Julie & Julia does have its touching moments, times that made this viewer smile or laugh out loud. Those moments are provided by the spectacular cast. It’s not that the movie is a great vehicle for the actors. Instead, it’s that the actors are so talented that they’re able to add flavor to a film would otherwise be quite bland.