Friday, August 7, 2009

Julie & Julia: Tasty repast

Julie & Julia (2009) • View trailer for Julie & Julia
4.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather pointlessly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.7.09
Buy DVD: Julie & Julia

Not that this comes as news, but Meryl Streep really is a marvel.

The consummate actress who impressed the world with an amazing body of heavily dramatic work back in the 1980s  The French Lieutenant's Woman, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood and Out of Africa, to name just a few  has, of late, shifted gears and proven herself equally adept at light comedy.
The stature, the cute mannerisms and particularly the signature laugh: Meryl
Streep channels Julia Child with unerring precision in this charming film,
which is an ingredient-perfect recipe for a delightful evening.

The Devil Wears Prada was the eye-opener: proof positive that Streep still owned the screen. Then last year's film adaptation of Mamma Mia! became a surprise summer hit that exceeded even the expectations of faithful ABBA fans ... and Streep deservedly got most of the credit.

Now, with Julie & Julia, Streep has taken celebrity impersonation to a level rarely achieved in the movies: a portrayal so uncannily accurate that artifice essentially replaces reality. Cate Blanchett caught Katharine Hepburn that well in The Aviator; Streep has done the same here.

Her Julia Child is simply astonishing.

It's not just the wincingly shrill voice that wanders all over the upper octaves, or the immediately recognized way that Child punctuated every remark with her hands; Streep has the body language down perfectly. Watching her re-create one of Child's many TV cooking spots, as the famed chef works up the courage to flip some fried dish in its pan  and watches, unruffled, as it flops out of the pan and onto the counter, as happened so often on her show  you'd swear it was an actual episode of TV's ground-breaking The French Chef, which ran from 1963 through '73 and paved the way for Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray and the dozens of other imitators who've appeared since.

Consider, as well, how cleverly camera angles are employed to suggest that the much shorter Streep actually is as tall as Child was.

Julie & Julia is director/scripter Nora Ephron's extraordinarily warm and clever love letter to both Child and Julie Powell, the latter a contemporary blogger-turned-author who carved out her own slice of fame by embarking on a 365-day journey through Child's published recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Ephron's delightful charmer, actually two stories woven into one, is adapted from Powell's Julie & Julia and an older book, My Life in France, written by Child and Alex Prud'homme. The resulting split narrative feels so right that one could imagine that the two source books were designed to be blended in this manner, like disparate ingredients unexpectedly helping an already luxurious dessert become even more sumptuous.

And, as was the case with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Bancroft, in the charming 1987 big-screen adaptation of Helen Hanff's 84 Charing Cross Road, this film's two protagonists never meet each other.

At least, not in the conventional sense.

Ephron's film begins in 1948, as Julia and Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) take swooningly gorgeous lodgings in Paris, a move prompted by Paul's position in the U.S. State Department. Julia, a far from traditional American wife with no intention of simply hanging about the house, flirts with various "hobbies" in an effort to keep herself occupied.

Nothing takes, until she enrolls in a cooking class.

And not just any cooking class, mind you; Child, never one to be intimidated by propriety, pushes her way into the male-dominated realm of the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She soon meets and befriends Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), who are collaborating on the world's first French cookbook for Americans: a concept that rates a contemptuous sniff from French gourmands who regard the American palate as primitive.

Beck and Bertholle ask Child to help them "Americanize" their project; the three also start teaching their own cooking class to ex-pat Americans, calling it L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (The School of the Three Happy Eaters).

Child can't know it, but this "simple book project" is about to consume a decade of her life.

Ephron languidly wanders her way through this sequence of events, though, because the various chapters in Child's budding career are intercut with an entirely different couple, time and place: Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), struggling to make ends meet in 2002, in a hopeless New York City walk-up above a pizza joint.

Both are writers by nature, and Eric has a career in the field; Julie, alas, hasn't been as successful, and spends her soul-deadening days in a cubicle fielding post-9/11 disaster relief phone calls from frightened, angry or despondent citizens.

Adams, her hair shorn to pixie shortness and doing her best with her character's budget-conscious wardrobe, couldn't be more different than the effervescent free spirits she played in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

Julie, rapidly approaching her 30th birthday, feels she has nothing to show for the academic training that should have fast-tracked her into the Manhattan publishing scene. She's distressed, conflicted and at loose ends, and nothing bothers her more than the regular "Cobb salad lunches" she shares with three "friends"  and the term must be applied loosely  who think nothing of ignoring Julie while taking calls during the entire meal.

Fortunately, Julie really does have one good friend: the far more down-to-earth Sarah (Mary Lynn Rajskub, always a treat), who can be as genuinely encouraging as Eric.

Julie also has the saving grace of cooking. As she puts it, a work day might be chaotic and disheartening, but once home she can blend this with that and the other, and know with certainty that an edible dish will result. She can control life in her kitchen.

Wanting to help his wife build on what she both wants and does well, Eric suggests that she "publish herself" by starting a blog: something somehow involved with cooking. Intrigued by the idea, Julie establishes "The Julie/Julia Project" and announces her intention to cook the 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking ... in 365 days. She resolutely begins, faithfully chronicling the results each day.

And then wonders if anybody "out there" is paying attention.

Blogs, it must be remembered, were fairly revolutionary back in '02.

It's impossible to pigeonhole the movie that emerges from all these ingredients; it's part travelogue, part history lesson and part romantic comedy. In terms of tone, Julie and Eric's efforts to cope with their hilariously awful apartment hearken back to Robert Redford and Jane Fonda stumbling their way through Barefoot in the Park, while the time spent with Paul and Julia Child feels more like A Good Year or Under the Tuscan Sun.

Most films, trying to be so many things, fail to be any of them; that's not the case here. At the risk of beating the metaphor to death, Ephron is a master chef herself, deftly blending these many ingredients into a thoroughly enjoyable repast.

But although production designer Mark Ricker masterfully sets the stage in both time periods, this film is dominated by its enchanting characters: Julia and Julie and, to only a slightly lesser degree, Paul and Eric.

Adams is the epitome of spunky cheerfulness ... except when Julie doubts herself and her project, and worries that the whole endeavor is a silly waste of time.

She's thoroughly credible at both emotional extremes: a character we identify with whole-heartedly. We want Julie to cook all those recipes  facing the need to gel aspic, boil lobsters and (shudder) bone a duck  not because of the challenge itself, but because she might find herself along the way.

Tucci, as ever one of our great under-appreciated actors, makes Paul the pluperfect cosmopolitan husband: a refined individual devoted to his brash, occasionally coarse and so much larger-than-life spouse. We also get a taste of the McCarthy-driven witch hunt through Paul's eyes  State Department employment in the '50s, remember  and Tucci's expression, during a truly ludicrous interrogation, drips a level of icy contempt that actual victims must have wished they could project, when such cross-examinations took place back in the day.

Messina seems superficially jovial, his best scenes early on devoted to Eric's enthusiastic devouring of his wife's many stunning dishes. But there's more going on here, and Messina's performance subtly shifts as Eric begins to worry that the tail may be wagging the dog, and that Julie might have lost track of her motivations.

One does wonder, just in passing, why Eric and Julie don't put on, say, 150 pounds apiece; all that food is very rich!

Given the many melodic notes that Ephron's film plays so gracefully, Julie & Julia eventually concludes with a chord that punctuates its parallel stories: Above all else, surprisingly, this is a valentine to authors, and their driving need to publish and become a voice that the world notices and then respects.

This destination is oddly poignant, the twin journeys enchanting.

And I haven't been this hungry, watching a movie, since the famed dinner scene in 1962's Tom Jones.

No comments:

Post a Comment