August 5, 2009
I wasn't sure what to expect from Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron's lively film based on the book of the same name. The book chronicles a year in the life of Julie Powell, a bored temp who decides to cook and blog her way through all 534 recipes in Julia Child's book Mastering the Art of French Cooking...in just one year. The movie version took the book further by paring Powell's story with Julia Child's in a bit of a flip-flop parallel structure that I originally expected to hate, but didn't.
On paper it seemed perfect: a Nora Ephron movie about food set in Paris and New York with a clearly (even from just the previews) brilliant portrayal of Julia Child?! How could that possibly go wrong? I love Nora Ephron and I love movies that have to do with food and cooking, and though I knew very little about Julia, I figured it's hard to mess up a story about learning to cook in Paris.
The part I was a little iffy about--the part everyone seemed a little iffy about--was the Julie Powell side of the story. I read the book about a year ago and I enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn't one of my favorites. I found myself skipping over parts and bristling over the harshness of her language. Nothing about the book ever made me want to run to the kitchen to cook, the way other food memoirs have. In fact, I remember finishing the book feeling exhausted and sweaty and, more than anything, just glad that it was over.
What it came down to is that I never felt a passion for the food itself in Julie's words. It seems ironic given the subject, but really what she had was an obsession and a determination. It was as if she made a choice and decided to stick with it come hell, but had no true love for it. She battled her recipes. She tackled them the way people tackle packing up books for a big move or tiling the bathroom floor. As incredible as her feat was, it failed to seduce me. And when it comes to food, I want to be seduced.
The movie was a different beast entirely. It opens in post World War II Paris, where Julia Child (played by the ever-brilliant Meryl Streep) is trying to figure out what to do with herself while her husband Paul is stationed at the US Embassy. Talking it over with Paul (Stanley Tucci) she determines that the only thing she really loves to do (and the only thing she is really any good at) is eat. Julia signs up for a tough French culinary course where she warbles and charms and fearlessly cooks her way to the top of the class (and beyond).
The Queens side of the story is somewhat less fanciful. Accordion music doesn't waft through the air in Long Island City, where Julie Powell and her husband live in a cramped studio over a pizza parlor. This isn't the charming New York City of Ephron's You've Got Mail or When Harry Met Sally. In fact, the city barely exists here at all, save for a few sweaty subway rides and the shots of Ground Zero outside Julie's office window.
The New York story takes place almost entirely in Julie's tiny kitchen where she diligently attacks lobsters and melts copious sticks of butter with the determination of a soldier, interspersed with her regular tantrums over poorly-trussed chickens and slippery aspic.
The eating is less pretty than at the Parisian dinner parties, but this part I actually liked. I relished watching Eric Messina, who plays Julie's ever-supportive husband, shove large spoonfuls of cake and entire slices of bruschetta in his mouth. It was that kind of real, honest, big-mouth eating that happens in home kitchens and tiny dining tables where the plates might be chipped and the trucks roll by all throughout dinner, but it’s no matter because the food is really, really good.
Other critics have said they thought the Julie story wrested time from Julia’s, but I enjoyed the modern contrast. Had the two stories been turned into individual films, I doubt that I would have been so drawn to either of them. What I found most intriguing, was the way that Ephron rewrote Julie as a much softer and likable person (all the whining and weird, bushy hair aside). While I actually liked the movie-Julie much better than the book version, I question whether someone with the temperament of the girl in the film could have actually accomplished such a task. I think one would need the fiery harshness of the real-life version to actually get through it.
I also thought it odd that neither of the characters gained any weight throughout the course of the story, even though that was a constant theme in the book—and one with which the real Julie Powell still admits to struggling. At one point, upon seeing Eric Messina shove another handful of cake in his mouth, my own boyfriend, who is very aware of the reality of living with a food blogger who constantly cooks and serves him delicious things, leaned over to me and asked “well why doesn’t he gain any weight?” Even though there were points where movie-Julie complained that she was “getting fat,” she could have just as well been complaining about being a giant green elephant, since either claim would have been equally absurd. I couldn't help think about those wonderful scenes in the Bridget Jones movies where her mood and the events in her life are actually mirrored in the pounds that come on and off her bottom. It would have been fun to see a bit of that realism injected into this movie, too.
As a food blogger with dreams of bigger things, I couldn't help being absolutely enchanted with the scene where a profile by the New York Times' Amanda Hesser causes Julie's phone to explode with calls from reporters, publishing companies, and literary agents. It was several years ago, when the food blog market was much less saturated, but I couldn't help but stare wide-eyed and think "Damn! I want that!"
Aside from the "book deal porn," one of the most lust-inducing scenes in the movie was the one where Julia walks around a cookery shop with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, casually picking up and dropping breathtakingly gorgeous copper pots into her shopping basket the same way one might randomly grab an apple at the supermarket. I was drooling over her gorgeous collection of shiny copper cookware and those perfectly outlined peg boards that Paul lovingly assembled for their Cambridge kitchen. “Can you make me one of those?” I whispered to Eugene when I saw them.
Despite all the warnings, we made the mistake of not having dinner before the movie. When it ended (two hours and change later) we rushed out of the theater and walked straight up Broadway to the nearest French bistro, where we quickly ordered warm goat cheese over frissee, duck pate, hanger steak in a red wine shallot sauce, garlic frites, and lots and lots of French bread and butter. At the table we talked about the film, and I was surprised that my boyfriend actually liked it; we never agree on movies so this was quite the event. Like me, he loved Meryl Streep's portrayal of Julia the best. Once the bread was gone, the waitress came back to ask if we’d like to see the dessert menu. I nearly laughed as I dove for the menu. We chose the chocolate fondue, which is not technically French, but I can’t imagine Julia ever objecting to a dessert that requires you dip delicious things in hot, melted chocolate. Can you?