Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Julie and Julia: Should Have Halved The Recipe

I can imagine the conversation that must have gone on when Nora Ephram went to the studios to pitch a movie about Julia Child. "Julia Child?" some twenty-two year old executive must have said. "How will movie-goers related to a deceased French cook?" (or perhaps worse, "who's that?"). The solution: license two books, one about Julia Child, and the other the book based on the blog by the young woman who spent a year cooking all of Julia Child's recipes ("The Julie/Julia Project"). It's about Julia, see, but younger audiences will relate to the young chick.

Then mix thoroughly and voila: audiences will flock. Unfortunately, rich as the ingredients are, the final confection falls flat, and probably due to all that mixing.

The Julia story – played by the always wonderful Meryl Streep and supported by an equally wonderful Stanly Tucci – tells a warm and tender story about how an American diplomat’s wife, stranded in Paris, learns to cook in order to pass the time, and eventually finds her m├ętier in besting the stuffy French and translating French cooking for the “servantless” American audience. Julia and her husband are very much in love, and the story is really about how women in the Fifties, servants to their husbands, were still able to occasionally find acclaim and satisfaction by discovering their hidden talents (if they were lucky enough to have husbands with the right careers, and the right politics).

Then there’s the Julie story – about a modern, twenty-something Brooklynite who discovers Julie Child’s cookbook and decides to cook every recipe over the course of a year. This tale is rather the opposite. Dour and unrelenting, this Julie has been turned into a stock Nora Ephram heroine: winey, self-absorbed almost to the point of weird obsession, more than a bit neurotic and the last person any man would want to spend any time with (the voice exhibited in the Julie/Julia Project blog is much more accessible than the character played by Amy Adams, and one feels sympathy with this author for what Ephram has done to the character.)

Ephram chops up the Julia story and sprinkles in the Julie story, shifting the mood between uplift and whiney, to the point that by the time the movie finishes, with Julie reminiscing in the Smithsonian over Julia’s kitchen, we feel cheated of both stories – the Julia story seems to be just getting going, and the Julie story should have ended long before, after an interminable sojourn in Julia’s footsteps with no new insight.

I don’t think the problem is necessarily Amy Adams (who’s serviceable enough) so much as it is Ephram’s cloyingly morose view of her heroine (and the fact that her story line must compete against the incomparable Streep, who elevates everything she touches). Adam’s Julie is a beleaguered assistant at the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation, hating her job and hating her new spacious brownstone loft, with its expansive deck and room for elaborate dinner parties, over a pizzeria in Queens. Yeah, that’s tough. Ephram shoots Julie’s trudge to work through the New York subway system through the “drab” filter, washing out colors and packing the frame with mundane details of office cubicle desk life. In part, this is meant to be a contrast to the romantic view of Julia’s 1950’s Paris, but it struck me as ungrateful: ninety percent of Manhattan’s middle-class intelligentsia lives this life, and enjoy it rather much – thank you. And I know the people working at the Redevelopment offices, and they are quite happy to be doing what they see as important, meaningful work.

Not so our Julie, who is pained by every workplace phone call and finds having a marvelously sexy and supportive husband who actually has a job he likes a real drag. My feeling is that this is all rather changed from the original blog project, which was written for quite different reasons (mainly to occupy time while unemployed, and establish a career). That Ephram changes the motivations of the heroine does significant damage to the story, I believe. I’d find it much more interesting to learn the strategic process of a happy blogger – or to just get the straight story of Julia Child’s life – than to sit through the sad lamentations of a female Woody Allen who draws inspiration from an imagined cooking Yenta. Yes, Woddy populates his New York portraits with nebbishes too; the difference is, he’s funny.

All of which makes it more painful to report just how wonderful Steep is in the backstory role. Julia Child is a character of easy parody, but Streep creates a person that is far deeper than, yet still recognizable as, the character we think we know. As Child, she brings the same kind of kooky intensity to discovering Paris and ingratiating herself into Parisian society that she later does to cooking and writing. Stanley Tucci lives up to his role as Mr. Child, loving his wife and lending his sympathetic ear as she finds her passion, and the straight story line of how Julia became Julia is the most moving and interesting thing in the film.

All the more reason to be disappointed by that ending in the Smithsonian, which stops us short of finding out the really interesting parts of Julia’s life, and refocuses back on the sad symbolism of our nebbishy heroine. I was fascinated by Julia Child’s kitchen – and curious to learn more of how she mixed her home life with her career. But by this time, I was thoroughly fed up, as it were, with the elaborately layered soft terrine of audience appeal Ephram was trying to make instead. Julia herself would have stripped out all that gooey gunk and served it to us straight, and perhaps raw.

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