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Julie & Julia (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 27, 2023

Julie & Julia

JULIE & JULIA (2009)

Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Emond, Helen Carey, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jane Lynch, Joan Juliet Buck, Crystal Noelle, George Bartenieff, Vanessa Ferlito, Casey Wilson, Jillian Bach, Andrew Garman, Frances Sternhagen and the voice of Mary Kay Place.

Screenplay by Nora Ephron.

Directed by Nora Ephron.

Distributed by Columbia Pictures. 123 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Nora Ephron is a terrific writer; however, her movie career has been much more up and down than her literary career. She has been responsible for two film masterpieces – When Harry Met Sally (which she wrote but did not direct) and Sleepless in Seattle. You’ve Got Mail, a third film she made with Meg Ryan (who co-starred in the other two) was very likable if not quite a masterpiece. However, for every good film she has made, we have had to sit through two or three stinkers from her – such as Bewitched, Michael, My Blue Heaven, Mixed Nuts, Lucky Numbers, Hanging Up and This Is My Life.

Early on in her film career, she also wrote the screenplay to two relatively good films which were made even better by their star – Meryl Streep. (Those were Silkwood and Heartburn). After all these years, Ephron has reunited with Streep and created what is easily her best film in a decade.

Julie and Julia is not exactly a complete return to form for Ephron, but it is very close.

A tag at the beginning of the film points out that the movie is “Based on Two True Stories.” Perhaps this is why the film falters a little, one of those true stories is infinitely more interesting than the other.

The narrative bounces back and forth between these two storylines, going from 1950s Paris to new millennium Queens with verve and style – and yet stylistically and substantively it seems like two very different movies.

The first narrative branch is about Julia Child, the famed television chef who singlehandedly broke the sexual barrier in fine cuisine, wrote the definitive cookbook that brought fine French food to the “servantless” masses and became one of the first and most beloved female celebs on TV.

The second part is about Julie Powell (played wonderfully by Amy Adams), a failed writer working a soul-deadening civil service job who decides – as almost a personal test – to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s breakthrough book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She plans to do it over a period of 365 days – and blog about the experience on the internet. Powell becomes obsessive about it and feels that she is somehow being touched directly by the then elderly cook. This blog allows Powell to finally learn perseverance and eventually lands her an audience and a book deal.

At the time, Child, who was 90 and close to death, was asked about the blog – and she was not at all complimentary about it. Child said it was frivolous and not sufficiently respectful of her work. The film does meet this fact head on, sort of dramatizing it – not showing an elderly Child saying it but showing Powell learning about Child’s words.

It is somewhat understandable that Child would feel that way, though. For Child, these recipes were her life’s work, for Powell it was a whim at first and turned into a hobby – a very time-consuming and demanding hobby, granted, but still a hobby. (I’m not judging. I write on the web, too. I know all the time and effort it takes.) However, this basic difference is why Child’s character always seems so much more important and interesting during the film – it is the difference between an innovator and an imitator. One leads and the other follows.

In fact, to a certain extent, the movie may have been better if it were merely called Julia and spent more of its time chronicling the chef’s life – though I do see why Ephron chose to compliment it with the more modern tale. Julie’s story will probably resonate more with current younger audiences, who really know little about cuisine and publishing history and may find Julia’s story a little dry. Julia was in many ways an extraordinary woman and is harder to latch on to than an everywoman like Julie.

Also, in many ways, the two stories do mirror each other. When we meet Julia, she also knows nothing about cooking. She is just a diplomat’s wife living in Paris who is not willing to just do the dutiful wife thing, so she tries a few hobbies – yes, cooking starts as a hobby for Child, as well – before finding her passion for cooking.

Both women have totally loving, doting husbands. Child’s husband Paul is played by Streep’s Devil Wears Prada co-star Stanley Tucci, who has a nice, familiar vibe with his co-star. If this film is to be believed, Julia and Paul Child never had a single moment of strife in their relationship. You know what? It may not be true, but it’s kind of nice to see. If the Childs were indeed able to achieve a truly happy marriage, then good for them. It’s just another reason to respect the woman’s achievements. If the film was just romanticizing the relationship, then fine. This movie is about the food. Anything else is secondary and honestly somewhat inappropriate to the story being told here.

Julie’s relationship with her husband Eric (Chris Messina) is only slightly less perfect. There is a short blow-up (it lasts a few scenes at the most) where Eric and Julie have a big fight because she is being self-absorbed and putting her blog before him – but that is just a hiccup in an otherwise strong relationship. Not all film love stories have to be full of strife – and these two seem natural enough that we buy them as simply a happy couple.

In fact, if you get technical, there is very little conflict in either of these stories at all. Julia must deal a tiny bit with sexism in 1950s France, her husband is fleetingly drawn into the McCarthy hearings (and just as quickly exonerated) and Child has a bit of a problem finding a publisher for her first cookbook. Julie worries about losing a job she hates, not being good enough for friends she doesn’t really like either and her somewhat negative mother’s expectations. Oh, and whether she can actually live up to the difficult task she has set for herself. Hardly life and death stuff, but who said that every occurrence in the cinema must be earthshaking?

Instead, Julie and Julia is more like a sumptuous meal made for friends – full of intriguing flavors and textures and essentially created simply for the joy it will bring and the love of making it.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: September 5, 2009.

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