Julie & Julia (review)

The Joy of Cooks

It’s not about saving the Earth from a giant asteroid and there’s no CGI rodents and Michael Bay had nothing to do with it and it doesn’t feature “characters” named after toys and it’s not even about guys partying so hard in Vegas they can’t remember anything. It’s just about two women doing something for themselves, for their own amusement and enlightenment, and not even to please their men — hell, they’re not even competing for the same man!

So of course it’s downright unimportant, even dismissible, even grading on the summer-fluff scale.
Is Julie & Julia summer-fluffy? Yeah, sorta, kinda. Neither Julia Child in 1948 nor Julie Powell in 2002 were in danger of destitution and death, never mind planetary destruction: they were just bored and directionless. What’s the big deal about that? That’s what most women have been coping with forever — you’d just never guess that from Hollywood movies. And for this Hollywood movie to determine that that’s not a good place for a woman to be, and that the solution to the problem does not involve a new romance or a new baby, a decision that many real women have, of course, been making for themselves forever, too… well, there’s something a little bit radical about that.

Julie Powell (Amy Adams: Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, Doubt) is happily married, actually, in 2002, to Eric (Chris Messina: Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Made of Honor), an editor at Archaeology magazine. (Small disclaimer: the real Eric Powell is a former professional colleague of mine, though I had no idea this story was about his wife until halfway through the movie.) But she’s depressed by her job, at a New York City agency dedicated to helping businesses and individuals get back on their feet after 9/11. There’s no hint at all in the chipper trailers for the film of a connection to that terrible day, but it’s completely appropriate here, and gives Julie’s side of the tale a tangy poignancy. Though the project Julie embarked upon later become famous enough to drive the creation of her bestselling book, Julie & Julia [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], and now this film, her idea to cook her way through the 500-plus recipes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.] in 365 days, and to blog about it along the way, was not conceived as any kind of stunt or grab for media attention, but just a way to reconnect to the joy of life that so many New Yorkers were desperately seeking back then.

Julia Child (Meryl Streep: Mamma Mia!, Doubt) is happily married, too, to American diplomat Paul (Stanley Tucci: The Tale of Despereaux, Space Chimps) as they arrive in Paris in 1948 for his new posting. Their life can only be called deliriously blissful: they’re madly in love, Paris is gorgeous, and the food…! But Julia had had a career of her own, most recently in the OSS — the forerunner to the CIA — during the war, and as any honest woman will tell you (and as Hollywood almost always denies), romance is the icing on the cake of life, not life itself. She needs something to do, so she goes to the snooty French cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu — which is mostly dedicated to turning men into chefs, the proper way of things — meets up with fellow female gourmands outside the school, and embarks with them upon her own immense project: writing that book that Julie Powell will start cooking her way through fifty years later. (Much later, she will write, with her nephew Alex Prud’homme, the memoir My Life in France [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon U.K.], which screenwriter-director Nora Ephron [Bewitched, You’ve Got Mail] would use as the basis for the Child half of Julie & Julia.)

Julie and Julia never meet — the two stories never interact — but they are deeply connected anyway… and not just in the obvious way. The doubt and the delight they experience as their projects take wild swings of success and failure are mirrored in the giddily joyful performances of Adams and Streep: spending time with them is like spending time with the kind of friends who support you and love you no matter what. (Unlike Julie’s friends, high-powered yet self-denying women who, in one notable if quick moment, act as food police to Julie, snatching a breadstick from her mouth. Or Julie’s own mother, who advises her daughter to “just quit” her ridiculous cooking and blogging.) Just as Julie takes solace and direction from Julia’s verve and confidence, Julia is bolstered by her longtime correspondence with a Boston woman she has never even met, who later turns out to have the publishing connections that set Julia on her path to fame.

But those are merely small details woven into a story that is glorious and cheerful and inspiring. This is a story full of verve, the kind of vivacity it’s sometimes easy to forget we should all always be living with.

And now, I want to devour that luscious-looking deboned-duck-in-pastry dish. Or that boeuf bourguignon that Julie had to make twice. Or brie and baguette and wine. Or lobster. Or… just, you know, life.

Watch Julie & Julia online using LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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