Friday, 21 August 2009

Review: Julie & Julia (2009)

I saw Julie & Julia on a dismal, wet Wednesday (I was going to have my wisdom teeth taken out the next day, and what better way to celebrate, I figured, than two hours of food-inspired film before entering a surgery-imposed fast later that evening?) and loved it. However, before sitting down in the theatre (which was practically stuffed to the gills, by the way), I wasn't quite sure if I would. More on that later.

The film, adapted by Nora Ephron (she directed as well) from Julia Child's memoir My Life in France and Julie Powell's Julie & Julia, juxtaposes the modern-day struggle for accomplishment of Julie Powell, slaving away in the offices of a company hired to redevelop the Ground Zero space after 9/11, with the similar, but unique, struggle of Julia Child as she settles in France with her American diplomat husband (Stanley Tucci).

This combination was greeted, when I first heard of it, with a very appropriate "What in blue blazes is Nora Ephron thinking?! Julie and Julia? How can she possibly pull this off?"

To my surprise, she did.

Ephron smartly chooses to introduce Julia to the audience first, in a gorgeous sun-dappled Paris, then, once we've grown accustomed to her (in a portrayal by Meryl Streep that may seem like a caricature at first, but when an actual real-life parody of Julia Child pops up later in the film, you appreciate how bad it could have been), she sends us into the not quite as peachy 21st- century existence of Julie.

Julie, out of most of her friends, is the only one that hasn't been really successful (a fact cruelly reinforced by an article one of these friends writes; Julie agrees to be interviewed thinking it's about "turning 30" and is dismayed when the article paints her as the member of a "lost generation" instead). This same friend starts a blog about her relationship with a millionaire, prompting Julie to start a blog herself.

She and her husband Eric (a charming Chris Messina) debate topics for said blog until they hit the jackpot: Julie will cook her way through the 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year.

"Is it crazy?" she asks him later, fretfully, in bed.

"Yes," he says.

From this early conversation, we get the impression Eric is some sort of saintly one-dimensional figure, but Ephron knows, from reading the source material, that he has his own crosses to bear, and they become evident in a scene which reveals his growing frustrations with Julie's constant meltdowns. Although a good deal of screentime is given to the titular women, they are surrounded by friends and, most importantly, their husbands.

Julia's husband Paul, like Eric, seems to be eternally content, but when the couple has to leave Paris and Paul goes under investigation for possible Communist ties, we really bear the full force of Stanley Tucci's portrayal: there is so much morebeneath the surface than we could possibly have known.

In a way, this film reminds me of The Devil Wears Prada and Evening, two films Streep previously starred in. Devil Wears Prada has a similar theme-- that of female accomplishment-- and also starred Tucci; Evening had the same sort of past/present structure this film has, but it had so many characters (and subplots) fighting for screentime that it didn't succeed, on commercial or artistic levels.

Julie & Julia has success on both of these levels, as it's currently the second-most popular film in Canada at time of writing, and, unlike G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (currently at number one), has a witty script, two artfully balanced plotlines (in screentime and tone), surprisingly deep performances by its main cast, and, of course, lots of delicious-looking food.

Those looking for a narrative "junction" at the end of the movie, similar to the ending of When Harry Met Sally (a romantic comedy Ephron also directed), will be disappointed. But Julie & Julia is not, despite the flimsy trailer, a romantic comedy by any means. It is a movie about accomplishment and finding one's way in the world, and displays a maturity that is refreshing in a summer of half-baked plotlines and bludgeon-like humour.

That, and so much more, is why Julie & Julia is what it is: an undeniable success.

So, what do the critics say?

Roger Ebert's review was mixed, and the reason I wasn't so sure I would like the film as much as I did. Granted, he's not right on everything, and I'm glad I watched it myself.

Ebert's primary concern is, like many other critics, the character of Julie Powell. He says:

"Amy Adams could make anyone lovable, but with Julie Powell, it’s sometimes a stretch. Julie is so single-minded about her obsession that it comes to dominate her married life. Having cooked a few of Julia Child’s recipes myself, I doubt there are many you can start on after getting home, some nights, as late as 8 or 9. The dinner bell seems to have rung at the Powell household after midnight, although the wait was mellowed by a remarkable number of martinis."

He-- again, like many critics-- has clearly not taken the time to read either Julie Powell's book or the original blog. This is understandable, as all journalists have deadlines and can't, as much as we'd like, research a film to its full extent. However, reading the original blog shows that Powell did start on many of these recipes at as late a time Ebert suggests, and completed them as well.

His second concern is with the husbands:

"Both husbands are, frankly, a little boring: They’ve been assigned their supporting roles in their marriages and are reluctant to question the singlemindedness of their wives."

But they do-- and thank heavens they do, because otherwise they would be disappointingly one-dimensional. Granted, the film is called Julie & Julia, not Eric & Paul, but Ebert seems to suggest that Ephron gave the husbands with very little depth, which they have. They're just mostly on the sidelines, like so many of the characters, because if every single one were to enjoy the exposure that Julie and Julia receive, the film would be an Evening-style mess.

Roger Ebert gives the film 2.5 stars out of 4; reading Katrina Onstad's review for CBC Arts online, you get the impression Onstad would have given it as low a score as possible.

I've chosen to discuss her review for two reasons: one, it is perhaps the most negative review of the film I've seen (if anyone finds more negative reviews than hers, please link to them in the comments), and two, it is full of a wrath and anger that, from reading Onstad's other reviews, you would never have guessed she possessed. It's, to be frank, troubling.

Onstad says of Julie's character:

"Powell is a pain in the a** – a whiny, volatile personality prone to anguished, food-throwing fits over trivialities. She b****es about her job and her unbelievably awful, status-conscious “friends.” (There is a bizarre luncheon, a kind of Sex and the City inversion, where every one of Julie’s friends belittles and attacks her for her lack of accomplishment. Sisters!)"

1. Powell throws a fit over food once in the film (although, if you'd only seen the trailer, you'd think she did it more often); the other food outbursts are justified, because she either scalds her hand on a hot metal pot or resolves to try again the next day. Did Onstad not notice this?

2. Onstad seems to believe that Powell has no right, like an ordinary person, to complain about a job that, from reading the blog, was very, very stressful. Onstad, I believe, would fare similarly if she had to deal with the post-9/11 anger and frustration of people directed at her person, day in and day out. Julie & Julia is not a romantic comedy, and Julie Powell complained in real life, so film-Julie is allowed to complain too. It's being true to character.

3. Onstad mentioning that women should support each other regardless of whatever occurs-- and the mention of Sex and the City-- seems to further my suspicion that she regards Julie & Julia as a romantic comedy. People do have egos, and being in power only builds those egos up. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, as it's said.

Ever the malcontent, Julie shrieks at her saintly husband, Eric, about every “obstacle” in her path, from deboning a duck to having to live in a rundown apartment in Queens. The solution to her malaise is to cook her way through Julia Child’s book and blog about it."

4. Eric, as the character himself states in the film, is not a saint; he, in fact, "hates it when [Julie] calls [him] that", and saying Julie "shrieks" is a disservice to the character when she merely expresses concerns. In fact, when the time to debone a duck actually comes, Julie does it calmly and succinctly, with Eric nowhere in sight. It's the last recipe she tackles in the movie, and thus is a showcase of how her character has grown, not her ability to whine.

5. I will agree with Onstad that, on some level, Julie's solution to escape her situation is to blog, but if you believed what Onstad writes, Julie decides to blog about cooking on a simple whim, rather than on a suggestion by her husband that she blog about what she loves. Which is, of course, food.

Onstad's attitude towards the film in general can be summarized in the following excerpt:

"Powell is a contemporary e-brat who won the blog-fantasy lottery at 30 – blog equals book deal equals Meryl Streep movie; take that, Diablo Cody! Meanwhile, Child is a woman who worked diligently at her profession for years... . It took Child and her co-authors years to finish the opus cookbook...

In contrast, Julie Powell barfs out her nightly ramblings on boeuf bourguignon etc. in a voice that’s typical of the blogosphere – at once superior and self-loathing; unflaggingly narcissistic – and hits Send... The generation gap is wider than the Grand Canyon; on one side is hard work and artistry; on the other, entitlement."

6. Powell is a "contemporary e-brat who won the blog-lottery fantasy at 30"? I wonder what Onstad, who also writes in a blog-type setting online, thinks of herself as. Is being published in the New York Times an indication of, and I may be taking this a little far, sainthood?

7. Do I sense resentment in Onstad's voice at Powell's success? Reading the blog itself, I have come to the conclusion that, rather than being "barf", Powell's writing is well-constructed and very descriptive, possibly an indication of the fact that she was honing her skills by working on a novel before deciding to blog. Concerning the "generation gap": it's the 21st century, Katrina Onstad; how else is a person supposed to get their voice out there? Calling the town crier?

Despite what Onstad (and, to a far, far lesser extent, Roger Ebert) thought of Julie & Julia, I felt the film was a success on many levels and had excellent and subtle characterisation.

It's a feast of a film, to which my only response is, as both Julie and Julia would say...

"Bon appetit!"

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