I must be honest here and confess to not feeling optimistic about Julie & Julia earlier this week. I am not a great fan of Meryl Streep and her Mary Poppins bag of regional accents and besides, it was a movie about a cook and a blogger ““ how good could it possibly be?
Rather blooming good actually.
Julie & Julia takes the lives of two apparently disparate women and links them across the years with a cookbook. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961 and went on to become a homemaker’s bible and her best known work. The journey from kitchen to publishing house was as complex as the Cordon Bleu recipes she sought to explain. Julie Powell began her 2002 blog as a something of a cry into the virtual universe in the months before she turned thirty because she wanted to do”¦something.
The thing Julie chose to blog about was her vow to reproduce, one by one, each of the recipes from Julia’s book. A twenty nine year old woman from Queens, who had never eaten an egg, decided to learn the art of Cordon Bleu ““ butter and all. She hated her job, resented her friends and once wrote half a book. She intended the Julie/Julia Project to be the one thing she completed in her life. 542 recipes in 365 days – no short cuts, no food allergies and absolutely no excuses. And on her journey she came to know the woman who wrote the book. Her idea of Julia became an invisible confidant she befriended and learned to rely upon. Which (truly) is not as cloyingly cheesy a cliché as one might imagine.
I had understood that the film intertwined the two women’s lives and stories and was a little sceptical about how well this would work. In fact, I felt more a sense of distinct windows into separate worlds. With a transition between views that was well and sympathetically timed without relying upon laboured parallels or “˜lessons’. Well very few anyway”¦
Amy Adams (Enchanted, Junebug) brought wit and charm to the character of Julie. I haven’t read Ms Powell’s book but I had a (mean and judgemental?) preconception that, in less likeable hand, she might have been rather irritating. For the purposes of Julie & Julia, however, she was endearing and it was easy to engage with her story. Meryl Streep too is impressive as an eccentric and unconventional diplomat’s wife trying to find her place, and her feet, in Paris of the “˜40s and “˜50s. Her performance does stray quite far into caricature at times, which I found off-putting, but when one has attained the rank of Hollywood royalty, I imagine you are granted a touch of self-indulgence now and again.
The unexpected delight for me in Julie & Julia came from the supporting men. Stanley (The Devil Wears Prada) Tucci and Chris Messina (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as husbands past and present lent the film a humanity – grounding its less digestible moments of melodrama and high camp. Stanley Tucci in particular stood out as Julia’s indulgent husband Paul. He lent a gravitas to Paul Child and reminded us, alongside the butter, baguettes and giggles, that McCarthyism was eating at the heart of the America the Childs had left behind. As a bachelor, Paul Child had been something of a gourmand and some of the most delightful scenes in the film come at its start when he is “˜educating’ Julia’s palate. Much will be made of the chemistry between Tucci and Streep and this follows The Devil Wears Prada as another successful pairing for the two. The performances, based on Julie Powell’s perception of their lives, are too contemporary and self-aware to be quite Ball and Arnaz, for me their double act recalled Nathan Lane and Bette Midler as Irving Mansfield and Jacqueline Susann in the 2000 Susann biopic Isn’t She Great. Bickering, tender and funny.
Writer/director Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle) hasn’t produced a film to live up to her early successes for some years. (I am thinking in particular of the execrable Hanging Up ““ for shame Ms Ephron!) With Julie & Julia she has made a return to – gentle, likeable ““ form. Indeed, I cannot imagine I will ever again hear the song Psycho Killer without a lobster flashback! The film is not life changing, astonishing or even particularly moving. It is entertaining, amusing and beautifully told with the sounds and smells of an historic French market as vividly evoked as the clutter of an insufficient kitchen in a latter day Queens walk-up. This is a Mum film, a Sunday afternoon film and a guilty pleasure for anyone who loves food and (secretly) doesn’t really like their friends.