Monday, August 10, 2009

Julie and Julia: Bittersweet

When people stay in their seats to watch the credits of a movie, they generally do so in silence, feeling slightly embarrassed about their need to know which stately home stood in for the heroine’s abode, or who sang that vaguely familiar song at the end. And when the relevant information is relayed on screen, these determined credit-watchers nod to themselves, murmur something thoughtful, and shuffle out, barely avoiding the teenaged boy who has come to sweep out the empty popcorn bags.

With Julie and Julia, this is not the case—at least it was not the case in the Greater Boston theater where I viewed the film on its opening day. With Julie and Julia, nearly the entire audience remained in their seats while the credits rolled. But they weren’t paying attention to the credits. Instead, they were all in animated conversation, torsos twisted towards each other in little clusters, talking about cooking, about the movie, and about memories of the movie’s protagonist Julia Child. The thought of leaving the convivial space of the movie theater was far from everyone’s mind until the hiss of the white screen forced people to leave.

Like a good meal shared with good friends, Julie and Julia makes people happy. It is not a complicated entertainment. In fact, it’s more of a Perfect Omelet of a movie than a Duck en Croûte sort of film. It doesn’t aspire to challenge its viewers with too much contemplation, but it succeeds utterly in the very straightforward mission it sets out for itself: to regale us with the life of a beloved icon, and, through the character of blogger Julie Powell, to make us feel better about ourselves for having known or learned about her.

How could Julie and Julia not succeed? It has Nora Ephron’s hilarious dialogue; it has Meryl Streep adding Child-ese to her quiver of accents; it has the lovely pairing of Streep and Stanley Tucci who were so well-matched in The Devil Wears Prada; it has Jane Lynch in a role that finally makes the most of her forceful physical presence; and it has Amy Adams doing a nice job in a role that sadly doesn’t require very much of her at all. This last is not Adams’ fault, of course, but rather has to do with the one flaw in the film—about which more later. Most of all, Julie and Julia is the antacid to Nora Ephron’s much earlier film about food and marriage, Heartburn. Never mind that montage of all four protagonists popping Tums. In Julie and Julia, the two marriages are happy and loving. Paul and Julia Child’s especially is joyful and robust (though we do wonder at times whether the filmmakers brought in Peter Jackson to work some Frodo/Gandalf magic with Tucci’s and Streep’s heights.) And though Powell’s marriage undergoes a slight hitch when food and cooking seem to push the husband (Chris Messina) out of the way, the problem is resolved quickly and without trauma. The night (or two or three?) that Eric Powell spends living in his office handily serves as the obstacle to be overcome in the film’s modified romance structure.

There is no question that part of what led my Greater-Boston audience to linger in the theatre was the movie’s depiction of two success stories. Julia Child gets her twice-rejected manuscript published as Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Julie Powell gets her blog made into a book, made into a movie (which the film cleverly jokes about in the credits). Both women’s husbands share in their successes without visible envy or bitterness. But here is where the film presents a problem. For what it seems to say quite clearly, if you look past the supposed evenness of its structure, is that we live in a fallen world. And by “we” I mean those of us cooking and eating in twenty-first century America.

The film’s title is rendered Julie & Julia but it might as well be Julie < Julia. The soufflé in Powell’s kitchen stays up, but everything else about her world is a fallen copy of that better world inhabited by Julia Child. Compare the two women’s lives: Child has French doors, French windows, France. Powell has a cluttered Queens apartment above a pizza joint. Child has markets where she can buy gleaming fish and glistening produce. Powell has Gristede’s. Julia and Paul Child enjoy their meals with good manners. Powell’s husband can’t stop talking with his mouth full. And most of all, Julie Powell aspires to Julia Child’s life. Julia Child lives it.

What does it say about twenty-first century existence that it can be considered a triumph to follow someone else’s life? Obviously, we live in a virtual time. But do we live in a derivative time, too? Child’s road to success was to follow something she loved passionately and to push and push until she was able to pursue it. Powell’s road to success was to imitate. When we watch the film, we have a choice, I suppose, to consider Powell as Child’s equal partner: they are two women who find themselves through cooking—and, in so doing, rescue the endeavor from its “little lady at the stove” image. But to choose this interpretation is to ignore the film’s underlying message. Powell is our equal, not Child’s. Like us, she comes home weary to cramped and imperfect real estate; she takes on more than she can always manage; she multi-tasks. Like Powell, no matter how skilled we are with our skillets, the vast majority of us will never have Child’s impact on a culture.

Ephron is a master of hiding sadness in the center of an otherwise lighthearted movie (Heatburn, or even When Harry Met Sally). She has done the same here. Her movie lets us keep our icon on her pedestal and tells us all the while that we don’t have to aspire to anything particularly grand in order for our lives to have meaning. It’s a consoling vision—and a bitter one.


  1. Yes, but maybe the great equalizer - or the great tantalizer - is that Julia didn't set out to change the world any more than the rest of us do (I think). She set out to do the thing she felt she was put on the earth to do, which ended up changing the world. The trick for each of us is to find that thing. What I found sad even while (full disclosure) I followed her blog from the beginning and enjoyed it, is that Julie Powell rode somebody else's coattails to fame.

  2. At least Powell cooked the food. Most of us will just buy the book .. or watch the DVD.