Monday, July 9, 2012

Half Worthwhile, Half Annoying, Ultimately Worth Only One Viewing: Julie & Julia Disappoints.

The Good: The entire Julia Child plot, Most of the performances
The Bad: Almost the entire Julie Powell plot, Moments when Streep slips out of character
The Basics: Erratic in the way it mixes a past and contemporary plot, Julie & Julia is lackluster chick flick fare which fails to resonate even with its target demographic.

[Note: As there are almost no experiences my mother and I shared together, I am opting to keep the opening to this review – which was originally written based on a preview screening of the film over a month prior to the cinematic release – unchanged. Enjoy!

There are few times I actually consider the theatrical experience, despite the fact that I often find myself these days in crowded movie theaters watching the latest movies with large audiences. But sometimes, I encounter something of note that leaves me baffled and feeling the need to discuss the phenomenon outside the work that inspired it. Today, what has me baffled was a result of the film Julie & Julia. I caught an early screening of the film a few nights ago - I was able to take my mother, which made her happy, as she is a big fan of Nora Ephron's works - and as the movie plodded along, I watched and listened to the audience. There were few laughs, few moments when anyone reacted. I thought this odd because preview screenings like the one I attended tend to be filled with people who are predisposed toward a work. Throughout the movie, the audience was largely quiet; they did not laugh, they did not cheer, they did not react for almost the entire film. But when the movie was over, the horde of women (the screening was predominately women) began to erupt into enthusiastic conversations about how much they had enjoyed the movie they had just seen.

Here's the thing, I'm a respectful first-viewer, but I find myself smiling, laughing or otherwise reacting during movies. As a seasoned viewer and reviewer, it did not take me long to realize that the reason I was able to observe so much of the audience during Julie & Julia was because I was largely bored with the movie. I suspect that most of the screening audience was and while there were certainly elements to praise about Julie & Julia, on the balance it is an erratic work whose most significant moments were shown in the preview trailers and that this is a film where the longer people have away from it, the less they will enjoy about it. In fact, my bet would be that people who were at the same screening as me would have little to say about the movie other than "Meryl Streep was great as Julia Child." She was, but even her performance was not flawless and one has to wonder why director Nora Ephron included certain takes in the film's final print.

Julie & Julia is a blending of two stories, poorly, one contemporary, one from the past. In 1945, Julia Child and her husband, Paul, arrive in France to work at the United States Embassy. As Paul establishes himself, Julia flounders and searches for something to do which will make her feel (and be) useful. In 2002, Julie Powell arrives with her husband Eric in Queens where the two take up residence over a pizza place so Eric may be closer to his work. Amid the pressure from her successful friends, Julie strives to actually do something with her life, as she spends her days working for the Lower Manhattan Development Corp and has no real authority of zest in her life.

Julie's solution is to start a blog and for one year, she begins going through the recipes of Julia Child from Child's famous book on cooking French cuisine. As Julie struggles to maintain her goal and grows in popularity on the internet, the film looks back to Julia Child, who becomes one of the first women to take advanced cooking lessons at the prestigious French culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. As she learns to cook, she finds herself in the company of two French women who are looking to teach cooking and sell a book in the United States on French cooking.

The plot is remarkably simple and the title implies it all and the film's trailers reveal it all: Julie Powell seeks gratification and acknowledgment as a writer by taking on the task of cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child's cookbook over the course of 365 days. While she wends her way through the cookbook, the film flashes back to the process of Julia Child becoming the world-renowned chef she was ultimately considered. The only question potential viewers will have after seeing the trailer is "Does Julie Powell succeed in her goal?"

The problem is, after the first few minutes of the movie, it is almost impossible to care. (Actually, attentive viewers to the trailer can figure out the answer as some of the final shots from the film are in the revealing promotional trailer.) The viewer knows the outcome of the Julia Child plot: Child will succeed in getting her cookbook published and readers everywhere will eventually flock to it. So, the only question in the Julia Child section is "how does Child get the book published?" Unfortunately, much of the beginning of the movie is bogged down with the Julie Powell plot and it is such a dud that it almost instantly crushes the momentum of the film.

Julie Powell, in Julie & Julia (I've never met the Julie Powell in real life) is boring, whiny and utterly without qualities worth watching. She complains about her job and the move with her husband and as she whines through the early scenes, viewers are unlikely to care whether or not she makes a goal and sticks to it, we just want her to grow up! In fact, her irksome tendency to complain is epitomized in such melodramatic phrases as "Ritual cobb salad lunch tomorrow. Dreading. Dreading. Dreading." In this stereotypical chick-flick scene, Julie gets together with her three friends, they all order variants of cobb salads and complain about their work (though her friends spend most of the time on their cell phones or digital voice recorders). Powell is characterized not so much as a woman who has friends with incongruent lifestyles, but rather as a woman content to be walked all over by her friends and otherwise neglected. When Powell declares that she has thoughts she could blog about, it comes at a point where most viewers will not care what those thoughts are and as she winds through the recipes in Julia Child's cookbook, the cooking takes place as quick cuts and final product shots and most of the plot is mired in the melodrama of Powell's home life.

By contrast, the Julia Child sections of the movie are wonderful and they become a welcome respite for the viewer from the whiny, annoying and over-the-top Powell. The irony here is that Julia Child is a tall, loud, energetic woman who is presented as over-the-top, but her struggles are more compelling and interesting than the faux-conflicts that come up with Powell, who has disproportionately (childlike) meltdowns over them. Child labors for respect only after she is actualized by her desire to be useful to herself and her husband. Her sections of the film are welcome respites from the Powell plot and the moment the film shifts back from the past to contemporary times, my stomach sank almost every time.

Nora Ephron, who adapted the books this movie was based upon into the screenplay and then directed the film, does a decent job of creating the two stories and developing them, but she is trapped using material that is half wonderful, half not so much. Ephron, who proved her ability to write complex and engaging romantic storylines with When Harry Met Sally is unfortunately given two stories that do not work nearly so well interweaving with Julie & Julia; and Ephron sure tries. Opening with what might seem like a schmaltzy shot of ground zero in Manhattan, Ephron quickly recovers by explaining away the use of the World Trade Center rubble for the necessary explanation of Julie Powell's ennui. Ephron then attempts to make parallels between not only the characters of Julie Powell and Julia Child (both government workers, both escaped their monotony through cooking, both were married, etc.) but the time periods. And while there are great parallels to be made between the early 1950s and the rise of McCarthyism and the reign of George W. Bush, Ephron makes weak connections. Paul Child is targeted by McCarthy and his goons and he and Julia suffer transfers as a result. Julie Powell and her husband have no similar political ramifications for their backstories, so Ephron's attempt falls terribly short (for a much better peek into the McCarthy-like parallels during the George W. Bush years, please check out Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip, reviewed here).

One of the things Ephron does quite well is not insult the intelligence of her audience. Julia Child is motivated in this by a need to feel useful, at least in part, by the fact that she is barren. One scene easily establishes this idea without making it explicit and another reinforces it wonderfully. Ephron never states it directly and this is a pleasant surprise for viewers. Unfortunately, so much of the rest of Julie & Julia is formulaic in the most unpleasant ways. As a result, Julie and her husband have all of the predictable conflicts and reconciliations that the film seems to feel the need to have. Unfortunately, they are formulaic and they are presented without any real emotional depth to them.

What Ephron does well is she fixes her mediocre recipe using great ingredients. Amy Adams is hard to discuss as Julie Powell because the character is so annoying and difficult to watch and her costar, Chris Messina is relegated to generic spouse status as Eric Powell, but both seem to be adequate in Julie & Julia. Meryl Streep is amazing as Julia Child, though. Ephron cast Streep perfectly and Streep lives up to the challenge, creating the flamboyant and fun Child in a way that makes it possible for the viewer to close their eyes and hear Julia Child perfectly. Unfortunately, even Streep's performance is not the absolute gem most would want it to be. While Streep is great, there are at least three moments in the film where Streep stops using the Julia Child voice and falls into her own. These moments stand out as memorable because in those few moments, Streep does not even carry herself the way she does the rest of the movie.

But the one who never slips is Stanley Tucci. It might seem odd in a film geared toward women with an amazing cast of prestigious or great actresses that the most laudable performance would come from a man, but Stanley Tucci does it perfectly as Paul Child. He plays Paul with a great emotional range, from quiet and supportive to eager and giddy and in every moment, he is unlike any other character he has played. His performance is so good, one wishes that he were in the movie more and that this had simply been a film about the life of Paul and Julia Child.

Ultimately, the best I can recommend is if you have the chance, see Julie & Julia once, but when it comes out on DVD don't bother with adding it to your collection. And in the hard and fast system of "thumbs up, thumbs down" or "recommend, not recommend," this is too tough a sell to advocate recommending. There is just not enough to keep viewers engaged and certainly not enough to come back to again and again.

For other works with Amy Adams, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Leap Year
Charlie Wilson’s War


For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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