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Joy of Cooking

Julie & Julia, Dir. Nora Ephron

By the time I finally got around to seeing Julie & Julia, the unanimous buzz held that the film’s double-biography format was seriously out of balance. Everyone hailed Meryl Streep’s depiction of Julia Child as dazzling, and there was broad agreement that Child’s ascent from bored embassy wife to world-renowned TV chef should have been the sole focus.

Less appetizing to most was the film’s parallel tale about New York wannabe writer Julie Powell, who in 2002 found fame by blogging about cooking her way through all 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Even as portrayed by the reliably radiant Amy Adams, Powell struck many as unworthy of sharing screen time with the doubly iconic Streep-as-Julia.

Streep: the wind beneath American cooks' wings. © Columbia Pictures.
Streep: the wind beneath American cooks' wings. © Columbia Pictures.

I assumed I’d feel the same way. Who doesn’t love Julia Child? And who can summon much affection for any of those legions of folks whose parasitic ambition launched them from blog to book to movie deal, swinging ever higher up the food chain on the slender vine of their slender talent? Moreover, although I’ve got enough X chromosomes to find a certain charm in Nora Ephron confections like When Harry Met Sally, her movies’ over-eagerness to please usually sets my teeth on edge. So I went to Julie & Julia expecting disappointment—the kind of disappointment that can make for an entertaining review.

Instead I loved it. Whether this is due to the film’s strengths or my own weaknesses I am not sure.

Streep’s performance really is delightful. There’s something fundamentally adorable about this actress, even when she’s playing a bitch on wheels in The Devil Wears Prada or doing karaoke-level musical turns in Mamma Mia. As Julia Child—huge, gawky, joyous in her love of her husband and French food, vulnerable in her disappointments and fears—Streep is adorable on steroids, without ever making us feel she’s demanding our adoration.

Julie Powell, on the other hand, is portrayed here as something of a whiner, a self-obsessed little careerist (“What do you think blogs are?” she reminds Chris Messina, who plays her endlessly patient husband. “It’s about me, me, me!”), and a klutz who greets kitchen mishaps with tears and tantrums instead of Julia’s gallant good humor. In other words she’s everywoman, with a familiar feminine proclivity for endlessly giving expression to her self-hatred and self-doubt. Like most women of ambition, she’s continually torn between her yearning to be a nice person and her willingness to be a bitch. And like most wives (and husbands, too), she finds her love for her spouse constantly threatened by insecurity and anger that she can’t control.

Doubtless this explains at least some of the distaste many viewers feel toward the Julie half of this movie, for indeed those conflicts and behaviors can be tiresome, even to the woman herself. Although Amy Adams invests Julie with as much charm as anyone can, a movie that was only about Julie’s struggles to write and cook her way out of her dead-end job and outdo her condescending, more successful friends would run out of steam pretty quickly, even with a book-deal happy ending. Julie is all too real, but she’s not all that interesting.

Julia Child is of course a significant historical figure—the woman who revolutionized American cooking and all that—and a more remarkable and engaging personality. But in Julie & Julia she’s utterly idealized, as is the post-war Paris she inhabits and her unspeakably happy marriage. She’s not a real person but a dream that Julie aspires to, a fantasy of marital kindness, self-esteem, and stick-to-it-iveness that no one, not even the real-life Julia, could consistently live up to 24 hours a day. I suspect that a movie centering on this soothingly anodyne household goddess would also fall flat.

At one point in the movie Julia describes how a beurre blanc combines the richness of butter with vinegar to create…she gropes for the word, and her husband supplies it: “Tanginess.” To this fan, at least, Ephron’s decision to combine Julie’s self-pitying complaints with Julia’s golden-glow heroics is a smart device that works on the same principle of mixing sweet and sour. And the elegance with which Ephron stitches these two stories together is delicious. Julie & Julia is a mechanism, but a beautifully crafted one, like a dollhouse in which, miraculously, everything works, albeit on a reduced scale. So while the figure of Julia provides the genius ideal to which we aspire, in our lives as much as our work, her modern-day counterpart, Julie, reminds us that successful mediocrity is probably the best we can do—and that we should nevertheless, be willing to enjoy it.

But perhaps what really suckered me into liking Julie & Julia so much is the food. It’s the real star in this movie, and that touches me deeply, for I am one of those legions of Americans whose private lives revolve around cooking, eating, and reading and talking about cooking and eating. Victuals usually get short shrift in Hollywood, where the most damning tabloid gossip isn’t about stars’ promiscuity or drug use but their weight gain. Even in movies where food is an important prop—I’m thinking of the stream of Italian dishes in Scorsese’s Goodfellas and the Godfather movies—it’s there only as a signifier. You rarely see the sensuous details of food being made or consumed.

Julie & Julia, by contrast, is all about the satisfactions of cooking and dining, alone or with others, as activities that unite our bodies, intellects, and souls in delight. I loved its celebration of buttery sauces and creamy desserts, its fascination with the details of preparation, and its unapologetic endorsement of sensual pleasure. (Not since Last Tango in Paris have butter’s romantic possibilities played so central a role.) When Child and her husband (Stanley Tucci, who here is pretty adorable his own self) sigh over a buttery fish filet, or when Powell mixes up a port, cream, and mushroom sauce or a chocolate cream pie, we are as close to enjoying it along with them as moving pictures on a screen can get us. This isn’t gastroporn, because it’s not exploitive or dishonest. It’s true love.


Tessa DeCarlo

Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2009

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