Julie & Julia

[4 January 2010]

By Kate Spatola

There is a beautiful alchemy to cooking on par with all the great and profound arts. It is natural, even primal to observe others in this activity of transforming objective truth and personal experience through simple food and drink. Academics and intellectuals can wax on about the anthropological, psychological and cultural reasons behind this curious phenomenon but most people are content to simply watch other people make beautiful food without having to worry about making a mess themselves. 

Food preparation as entertainment is a well-established (and very profitable) division within pop culture and entertainment. Today, television chefs bask in the same celebrity glow once reserved for musicians and movie stars.

The woman who ushered in this phenomenon (at least in the United States) was Julia Child. In a 1962 television promotion for her recently released cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child quickly established herself as a favorite and most unique presence in the kitchens of America’s homes. There were television chefs before Child, but they were experts and didactic instructors.

Child, with her singular and towering presence was anything but conventional. Her unabashed exuberance and passion for cooking mixed with a healthy sense of humor and playful humility made her approachable in ways that previous television cooks never could manage.

The 2009 film, Julie & Julia, is (in part) the story behind the woman who changed the way America cooks. Based on the 2006 memoir by Julie Powell, Julie & Julia is the dual story of Child’s introduction and immersion in the world of French cuisine in the early ‘50s and the tale of Powell as she makes her way in the modern world with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) as guide and muse.

Stuck in a cubicle, stung by her lack of professional success and depressed after her relocation to the outer borough of Queens, New York Julie Powell (Amy Adams) sets to make sense of her life by tackling all of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  In 2002, with the encouragement of her husband, Julie undertakes the yearlong task of preparing all 524 recipes in Child’s seminal cookbook and to record her efforts in an online blog. Julie & Julia is the cinematic re-telling of Powell’s efforts in tandem with the culinary birth of Child in Paris.

Working from the blueprint of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julie seeks to chart a course forward in her life. Unfortunately, what proved successful in written form fails to translate to the screen.  She may have a list of everything she needs to cook her way through the book but she lacks the originality, insight and personal conviction to realize what amongst the list of varying ingredients, exotic foods and reliable instructions truly matters. Whilst Powell is content with faithfully following recipes, Child was bold enough to strike out on her own (in the kitchen) and experiment.  Powell’s story feels less like the engagement or re-animation of personal passion through culinary exploration than re-heated leftovers. 

Switching between the two women’s stories disrupts the momentum of Julie & Julia. The movie feels like a series of fits and starts and prevents the audience from investing fully in either woman’s storyline. Just when you feel on the verge of being absorbed by Child\s decadent embrace of Paris and its rich food culture we flash forward to Queens and are asked to muddle through the banality of Powell’s existence.

Powell feels flat and unoriginal and not just in comparison to the formidable Child. There is no spark of originality or true passion in her presence – if so it is buried under so many layers of unnecessary filler that the audience cannot be bothered to sort through. She is a minor character and there is general lack of engagement whenever she is on screen. Oddly enough, this is not an insult directed at Adams’ performance. This highly talented and likable actress does all she can with a character that is essentially flat and uninteresting.

Luckily, there is a spark and verve in Streep’s performance of Julia Child, which rescues Julie & Julia from outright failure.  Her turn as the inimitable Child serves as a distracting side dish to the main meal, which is actually rather bland and unremarkable.  It makes you wish Nora Ephron, the director, had focused her attention solely on Child’s story and left Powell to her blog.

It’s hard to imagine another actor working in film today who could step into the sizeable shoes of such a unique American icon other than Meryl Streep. She captures Child’s intelligent expansiveness and passion with just the right tone. Whilst Streep’s performance is infused with great enthusiasm and reverence, it can at times feel too heavy and broadly drawn. She does not slip into easy caricature or mimicry, but there is expansiveness to the performance that perilously straddles the line between admiration and caricature. 

The biggest flaw of Julie & Julia, however, has little to do with the film itself but rather speaks to the detachment in the essential story of these two women: the individual manifestation of personal disconnection and shared discontent.  Julie and Julia are two women trying to cook their way to hope, understanding, and personal contentment. The difference between the two, however, rests in the fact that for Child, cooking is a passion that opens her to other experiences in the world and for Powell, cooking is merely a task that she must complete in order to fulfill a self-assigned duty.

Julie & Julia is the cinematic equivalent of comfort food: simple and made with little fuss.The main course is enjoyable enough, but will most likely never be a meal you rank among the best. 

The DVD extras are all fairly standard and rather unexceptional. There are the obligatory commentaries (provided by Ephron), behind the scenes featurettes, cast and crew interviews, and trailers.  The Blu-ray release is little better with supplemental offerings that include additional biographical features on Julia Child, interactive recipes, trivia and production information.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/117981-julie-julia/