BOOKS AND ARTS AUGUST 6, 2009
“Repeat after me,” Julia Child’s husband tells her in the opening moments of Julie & Julia. “Nous cherchons un bon restaurant Francais.” “Repeat after me,” Julie Powell’s husband tells her a few minutes later, “Nine hundred square feet.” This is the distance between the film’s homonymic protagonists, between the palatial Parisian flat in which Child began writing her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the 1950s, and the dingy apartment above a Queens pizza parlor in which Powell began blogging her way through its 524 recipes in 2002.
Julie & Julia is, of course, less interested in economic differences than in what it perceives to be spiritual similarities--two women, half a century apart, who reinvent themselves, find meaning and self-confidence in the kitchen, and ultimately achieve fame and fortune. But as these two interwoven stories unspool, viewers may find themselves struck more and more by just how superficial the parallels are. Child and her coauthors, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, revolutionized American cuisine; Powell wrote a blog for Salon.com that she subsequently adapted into a book. Child was a woman of unassailable enthusiasm and world-historical gregariousness; Powell, at least as portrayed in the film, was moody and self-absorbed. Child had a joyous, openly romantic marriage; Powell had a fraught one (indeed, ultimately more fraught even than the film conveys: Her second book, due out in December, describes the extramarital affair in which she indulged following the publication of the first). Julia Child, in short, is a hugely worthy subject for a biographical film; Julie Powell, no offense, is not.
As a result, Julie & Julia, written and directed by Nora Ephron, is a radically unbalanced undertaking. The Child portions of the film, in which Meryl Streep gives what may be the wittiest and most charming performance of her career, are a sheer delight. Streep neatly captures the outsized Child mannerisms that, for those of us born before 1970, approach the texture of genetic memory. But unlike, say, Cate Blanchett’s Hepburn impersonation in The Aviator, Streep’s performance evokes the underlying spirit as well: effervescent yet indomitable, a radical traditionalist. Child’s rapture at her first bite of haute cuisine, a beautifully browned sole meuniere, is palpable; her subsequent culinary exhilarations (“French people eat French food every. single. day. I can’t believe it,” she gushes) are utterly contagious. And though Streep is at least a half-foot shorter than Child’s vertiginous 6’2”, Ephron uses a Peter Jacksonesque array of effects and angles to enhance her apparent altitude, and Streep mimics expertly her vaudevillian carriage.
As her husband, Paul, Stanley Tucci offers his customary wry wit but also a deeper reservoir of tenderness than he has generally been called on to display. Indeed, Julia and Paul’s marriage is among the most appealing portraits of the institution since Nick and Nora Charles teased their way through six murder films in the 1930s and ’40s. The Childs are mutually devoted and supportive, yes, but also committedly carnal, whether it’s Julia’s description of the lunch and “naps” with which the couple filled her midday breaks from Cordon Bleu training, or Paul’s feisty translation of a tricky French recipe: “Bathe the thighs in butter and then stuff the hen…. until she just can’t take it any more.” I won’t even relay the obscene simile Child deploys to describe the firmness and heat of boiled manicotti, but it’s enough to make Judd Apatow blush. The couplings of this giddy giantess and her bald, bespectacled hubby will probably do more for sex in America than all the frictionless collisions of aerobicized abs that Hollywood inflicts upon us for the next decade.
And yet, like clockwork, every ten minutes or so we’re pulled away from the midcentury chronicles of Julia and Paul for another installment of Julie Powell’s infatuation with Julie Powell. It is Ephron’s good fortune that she shanghaied Amy Adams--an actress so irresistible that she briefly brought even the Night at the Museum sequel to life--into the role, and for a while she keeps the character afloat above her unhappy particulars: the job she hates, fielding post-9/11 complaints for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation; the bitch-caricature friends who ostentatiously lament her lack of success; the marriage into which she seems disinclined to put much effort (Chris Messina is cast in the thankless role of husband Eric). This is all supposed to change once Powell decides to blog her way through every recipe in Child’s magnum opus--and, in a sense, it does. She now has something she is doing for herself that can override her obligations to anyone else: a fake sick day here, a neglected hubby there. As she explains at one point to her better half (and, in this case, he really is her better half), “Okay, maybe I’m being a little narcissistic. … What do you think blogs are? It’s about me, me, me.” Even the endlessly exaggerated terms in which she describes what Child’s example means to her--“she saved my life”--ring less as genuine gratitude than as an ongoing drama of the self.
I don’t know what led to the delusion that this latter tale would elevate the former, that we’d better appreciate the woman who composed the recipes if we also spent time with a woman who followed them, but the whole enterprise has a whiff of marketing to it. Did the filmmakers worry that Child wouldn’t be “relatable” to contemporary women? Was there a fear that the 18-35 demographic would decline to show up if it didn’t have an onscreen representative? Whatever the cause, I left Ephron’s film hungry for another helping of Julia Child, but with the queasy sensation that I’d been fed more Julie Powell than could comfortably be digested.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor of The New Republic.