08 September 2009

Film Review: Julie and Julia

I must admit when I first heard that Nora Ephron was making Julie and Julia, a film that combined the lives of Julie Powell (former food blogger) and Julia Child (American culinary institution), I was torn between wanting to camp out at my local cinema for opening night and washing the cat.

In as much as I have fond memories of Julia's confidence (and voice) in her highly influential cooking shows, I never took to Julie's blog or her book. When
Jenny of All Things Edible suggested she, Mary of Beans and Caviar and I see the film, how could I turn down a night out with two food bloggers to see a film about Julia and food and blogging?

Ephron mines Child's autobiography (written with Alexander Prud'homme)
My Life in France with Powell's blog-cum-memoire Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously for a screenplay that intertwines the two women's stories.

Yes, there are parallels: Julia Child, a diplomat's wife in post-war France, finds purpose in food and along the way enrolls in Le Cordon Bleu and, over the series of years co-authors
Mastering the Art of French Cooking a seminal two-volume work that eventually brought Child and French cooking into American homes via television. Julie Powell, a New York City municipal worker answers phones in the aftermath of 9/11, blogs her way through MAFC (Vol. One) in one year as an escape from daily existence and in the process becomes one of the blogosphere's first to find mainstream popularity, sharing her adventures with thousands of online readers.

Production quality is high: Meryl Streep's eery chameleon-like ability to transform herself into any character is amazing and Amy Adams' performance as a disillusioned 20-something is something many can easily identify. Set decoration and costuming are impeccable--important, I think in what is a double period piece, although I must admit that I was partially distracted looking at Streep's shoes and other tricks to give her Child's height.

I laughed. I sympathised. I was hungry. At one point I wanted to go into Powell's kitchen and show her how to poach an egg. At another I wanted to step into Julia's kitchen and give her a hug as she found out her sister was pregnant. Throughout I wished smell-o-vision had been invented because I could just imagine the aromas wafting from both kitchens.

Let's be honest: It's a chick flick. It's a foodie film. It's a film about "finding yourself" (good gravy, I hate that phrase). It's a film about relationships--my heart melted whenever Streep and Stanley Tucci (who played Paul Child, Julia's husband) were together. If you're looking for sex amongst the sauciers, hand grenades in the pomegranates or a gun that shoots bullets instead of frosting...this film's not for you. Really--go see one of the other mindless bits of Hollyweird drivel and leave this to people who cook and eat.

I left the cinema with one thing in mind: "If they release a DVD version that cuts out all the Julie Powell parts, I'll buy it."

Powell's qualities I picked up on while flicking through her various posts as well as leafing through her (still unbought) book which turned me off were more than evident on screen: narcissism, over-inflated ego and her profanity crutch (it's mentioned in passing, probably to keep a PG-13 rating).

For me the cinematic moment that encapsulates Powell's ego was when she found out Child, her idol and the woman to whom she hitched her fame-brought wagon, didn't really care for her or her blog. The reaction was that of an entitled, talentless and overly-protected and overly-lauded little girl who is faced with the cold reality of their mundane ineptitude for the first time: shock/disbelief and sadness (Powell probably went through the other five stages of grief, but there's only so much time and celluloid).

Powell has since argued that the Julie Powell on film is not the Julie Powell in real life. In reading her plea two things came to mind. Minor details like what you did or didn't do in school, as well as who you do or don't hang out with is irrelevant because as many of us who've a few braincells to rub together know: Hollywood makes stuff up so characters and events are interesting to the popcorn-munching masses. The other is: Powell's probably never had her portrait painted by someone without a vested interest in placating her ego. In other words: she doesn't like the interpretation derived from the thousands of words she's committed to pixels and print.

At the same time, the Julia Child on film can border on caricature. If Julia were alive today, what would she think of her cinematic doppelganger? I don't know: the film paints her as knowing her mind, so I'm guessing that she would have voiced her opinions. One thing I'm fairly sure of is she probably wouldn't whine.

What we are presented with are character and feat interpretations as amassed by writers, actors, directors and editors as well as focus groups and marketers. There are thousands of words and hours and hours of film about and by Child, far fewer about and by Powell. I think they did the best they could with what they had. As
Kalyn wrote in her review, it would be better if Ephron and her team better translated Powell's culinary and blogging feat to screen. I wonder what pre-FoodTV cookbook authors (aka not the "I appeal to the 18-55 year-old male demographic and those who'd rather look at food than cook food" bobbleheads) have to say about getting published about the treatment of Child's accomplishments.

My guess is Ephron is neither a home cook nor a motivated blogger which is a shame because that part of the film was not handled as well as it could have. It's akin to making a movie about travelling to the moon written, produced (etc) by a team who's never studied the space sciences, but may have looked into a light-polluted night sky. In other words: it lacks consistent authenticity.

One thing I cannot fault is the food. It looked wonderful--even Julia's mountain of chopped onions looked fabulous. I just wanted to eat everything...

In prepping for this review, I decided to revisit Shari's MAFC index. Truth be told I'd love to have done a poached egg dish for this, but I just did Oeufs à la Bourguignonne for Hélène's MAFC event. Being the stubborn person I am, I kept to the egg theme and did a favourite breakfast-brunch dish: Oeufs en cocotte. It's easypeasylemonsqueezey, highly adaptable and is a non-recipe recipe, but Julia's recipe is in the link.

I did two versions: the first had a layer of
mushrooms sauteed in garlic butter and the other was prepared in a ramekin lined with shaved salami. I like baking them until the whites are opalescent ad the yolks are thick and creamy...perfect for dunking toast tips.


PS. I will never hear Talking Heads' Psycho Killer the same way ever again:

What I'm reading: The Heart is an Involuntary Muscle by Monique Proulx

I'm a quill for hire!

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Conor @ HoldtheBeef said...

What an interesting review! I must admit I'm not familiar with Julie Powell's writing, though I had heard of her MAFC exploits, but now you've got me curious to have a read and perhaps get annoyed with her too. Will I get along to the film? I'm not sure. Maybe if a nice dinner is offered along with it ;)

Valérie said...

Great review. I agree that the Julia Child half of the film was great stuff indeed - and, like a lot of people (so it seems), I had issues with the Julie Powell parts. My reaction was part "Oh dear, am I like that too?" and part "Oh dear, is this how food bloggers come across to other people?". I suppose it's natural to assume that anyone who starts a blog is at least a little ego-centered, but I do rather wish the more positive aspects of food blogging had been played up more. They are featured, for sure (Powell's project eventually shapes itself into a "finding yourself" quest, as you say), but that's not necessarily what I walked away with at the end of the film.

DaveSpencer said...

I'm about three-quarters of the way through the book at the moment, as the film comes out on Friday here in the UK and the book is destined for the library on that date and to be honest I'm enjoying it quite a lot. Sure she is very ego-centric and full of herself, but I think what makes it such a good read is that she is a real person, and whether or not Julie is someone I would like to meet in real life, I do think that it is a good idea to find out something about the way that another person lives and finds a way out of her 'troubles' through food. And to be fair, the book's about food, so you can just gloss over the human aspect of it if you don't want to read it. I am quite enjoying it though, I'm not ashamed to say, so I can't wait for the film.
Very interesting and informative review though. And such a wonderful blog, I've just come across it so well done!

Anonymous said...

You are amazing...were you in the theater with me, in my head? Your review sounds as though it came from my own lips and so, of course, I think you are spot on with your review of the movie and comments about Julie too.

Cookie said...

Great review! I still haven't had the chance to watch the movie yet. (I know, bad food blogger!)

hyperwink@gmail.com said...

I found myself slightly annoyed with the book. She just was a lot of personality to take...and a lot of that personality was throwing itself on the floor having temper tantrums. I wish she had concentrated more on the food part and less on the poor me part.

Jamie Woolner said...

I appreciated your review of the movie from a 20 year old male culinary student perspective. I saw the movie and it left a bad taste in my mouth and yet strangely enough, hunger in my stomach. I enjoyed the Julia parts of the movie like a would enjoy a fine painting.

Well done. You made me laugh.


Shari said...

Great review! I enjoyed the movie, but definitely preferred the moments Meryl Streep was on screen.

Cakelaw said...

Hi Jasmine, I enjoyed your review - it's the first I've seen that hasn't gushed about the film, so it's nice to get some perspective. It doesn't come out here til the end of the month, so I look forward to seeing it with interest.

La Cuisine d'Helene said...

Thanks for adding this delicious dish to my event. I will link to your blog. So nice of you :)

Also I watched the movie with my 17 yrs old son and my 20 yrs old daughter. We enjoyed it. We laughed a lot. Maybe now they understand why I love blogging so much about food.

breadchick said...

YES!! I second what someone said above, were you sitting in the theater next to me?

Kalyn Denny said...

I liked the movie much more the second time I saw it, when I managed to forget the parts I didn't like and savor the parts that worked for me. An interesting movie, but for me (even the second time) I had the feeling it could have been better. I think you've hit on some of the reasons here, nice job.

creampuff said...

Hi my friend! I'm back and catching up on my blog reading. I saw the movie before I left for vacation and I have to say I had a very similar reaction. Overall, I really liked the movie but I agree that there were some issues. Well written!

Kim (@ Paper Apron) said...

Wow. So honest. This is actually the first honest review I've read.

I enjoyed the movie, but was disappointed in a few scenes where the lighting/makeup or the director failed Ms. Streep and her skin betrayed that she was far older than Julia would've been while in Paris. Oh well. I just thought her acting deserved better craft from the movie makers.

Still, I'd watch it again. I read the book. I enjoyed it. I thought it was a lot of fun. I'd never been to a food blog before I read the book. I didn't know how you found one. But I did think Julie's language is such a tell on her need to shock and for someone who claims to love words, she was a lazy partner to them. Of course, I don't think the blog or the book would've garnered much attention if she hadn't been so crude. Similar to Dooce.