Monday, February 15, 2010

Julie & Julia

About two-thirds into through Julie & Julia, Julie and Eric Powell are sitting on the couch watching Dan Ackroyd's "French Chef" sketch from Saturday Night Live. The film pauses its forward momentum to show us a good two minutes of the bit; in addition, we get to watch the Powells reveling in a delightful send-up of the culinary icon they love so much.

It's Julia Child, of course, who is the subject of the Powells', of Ackroyd's and of the film's adoration (remember that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery). And for the skinny half of the film that isn't following Julie Powell down her road to flash-in-the-pan1 celebrity in the early aughts, we get to watch Meryl Streep fill Child's heels in the middle of the 20th century.

The inclusion of Ackroyd's bit strikes me as an acknowledgment that the "character" of Julia Child as seen in the film cannot compare to a very real person that millions of people grew up with and loved. What Streep is doing here isn't acting - it's sketch comedy. In the same way that Julie Powell, with nothing better to do, set about recreating all 563 recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Meryl Streep is here recreating a larger-than-life figure. We see Fred Armisen doing the same thing to Barack Obama every week on SNL. This is a movie about impersonations.

As the film begins, Julie Powell is working at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, wasting away in a cubicle as a sounding board for the city-full of people who need to dial a number and complain that the plans for Ground Zero aren't sufficiently sensitive to the memories of a loved one. This job stinks, as you can imagine, and plus she's underpaid and has basically nothing to live for except cooking, ignoring her poor cat and emasculating her poor husband.

Fortunately, this is 2002 and Powell can still get on the internet while the getting's good. She brainstorms a scheme to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blog about them in the course of one calendar year. Through her blog, Powell earns a book deal, achieves an unexpected celebrity among people who care about blogs and gets a movie made out of her life.2

I've been making a conscious effort to eschew cynicism recently but it's difficult to feel a lot of joy for Powell and her success. There's really nothing special offered here from Powell or 'The Julie/Julia Project'. The point of Child's seminal cookbook, after all, was that anyone can cook, even "servantless Americans". What Powell does in this story is capture lightning in a bottle, the same way OK Go did with their video for "Here It Goes Again". A much better writer could tackle the same project in an even smaller kitchen, but it was the novelty of the internet that made Powell famous, and that novelty is a thing of the past.

There's one beat in which Child breaks down in tears because her sister is immediately pregnant right after her wedding - but this five seconds is all the movie devotes to the tragedy of Child's childlessness. This turns out to be a good thing, because what Nora Ephron actually does really well is comedy. This is something I was surprised to find myself reminded of (especially after Bewitched) but damn if this movie isn't sporadically hilarious. Child was such a character that Ephron and Streep have no choice but to allow themselves some fun (plus Stanley Tucci makes for a decent straight man).

Ultimately it's Ephron's lack of focus that actually keeps the thing cooking3. Rather than get bogged down in familial drama and saccharine challenged-marriage arcs (and she comes frighteningly close more than once), Ephron keeps things moving with setpieces like "Julie has to boil live lobsters" and "Julie's boss discovers her blog", all juxtaposed with "Julia chops a ton of onions" and "Julia can't get a book deal even though she's Julia Child! Wink!"

So I find myself resenting that Powell placed herself on a pedestal and that Ephron came along to reinforce it. But the film is, consequentially, architecturally fascinating: despite the cutesy end-title acknowledgement that "Powell has had a movie made out of her life," even her own self-made story was too skimpy to support itself. Ephron had to create a mash-up. The film announces in its opening that it is "based on two true stories" (and I hate that cloying shit) but really it's the lazily drawn parallels between the two women's lives that make either story remotely interesting. Taken on her own, Powell really isn't worth much. It's her impersonation that's fascinating.

1.) No pun intended, I swear.[back]

2.) I do love a good fantasy.[back]

3.) Okay, that one I intended.[back]

No comments:

Post a Comment