Posted by: gdevi | March 11, 2010

Movie Review: Julie and Julia (2009)

I reserve the spring break to clean the yard; make it nice and clean for the squirrels, sparrows, robins and rabbits who have come out of hibernation and scurry about looking for something to eat. (What a beautiful morning today–I was up at 6 as usual to get Daya ready for school and it was so beautiful to see the squirrels out in the backyard, little fellows skipping and scampering around.) I reserve the spring break also to see all the movies that I want to see for fun. I actually wanted to title this review Julie, Julia and Me because this movie addresses my  obsession with cooking, cookbooks, and writing in a familiar manner.  I love reading cook books. I have many many cookbooks from almost all over the world. Much like reading any other book, I read cookbooks for the ideas they contain; I rarely cook from them–I cook from my head–I read them mostly with wonder; who knew you could do such and such with milk? I like sitting down with a good cook book and a cup of good  tea and learn the right way to blanch asparagus for the shrimp scampi with asparagus. Cooking and writing involve the same type of anxieties; if they are good, they are really good. If they are bad, they are really bad. There is the in-between kind, but those books don’t sell for long; those recipes get folded over notched with a single star. Nora Ephron who adapted the screenplay from Julie Powell’s blog/book Julie/Julia Project and Julia Child’s My Year in France — two autobiographiesand directed the movie knows the devotion writers have to their craft and real cooks have towards food. This is a beautifully acted movie with a crisp screenplay and with an universal institution like Julia Child as one of its characters the movie transcends the chick flick genre into a genuine story about love and devotion to work.

Meryl Streep who plays Julia Child knows all the jokes about Child; for instance, we see Julie (played gorgeously by the young Amy Adams–this is Adams’s second collaboration with Streep; she played the intimidated nun to Streep’s senior nun in Doubt last year) and her husband Eric watching the famous Dan Aykroyd spoof of Child on Saturday Night Live; Child persists in dressing a chicken even after she cuts her thumb accidentally–in Aykroyd’s version at least a litre of blood gushes out and drowns the chicken while Ackroyd narrates what he is doing to the chicken in his high-pitched imitation of Child’s unique vocal delivery. Child was very tall for a woman (in fact Paul Child, Julia’s husband built that special kitchen now exhibited at the Smithsonian to accommodate her height) and to me her voice also sounds like it is being delivered from a horrendous height, sort of like God speaking from some azure beam in the sky. But even with the jokes and the spoofs that we all know Streep plays Child with an endearing authenticity; in her hands Child comes alive as a complex woman who can compare a cannelloni to a penis matter-of-factly while shying away from making business deals to an obsessively focused cook with a wacky sensuality. It is a beautiful performance and her scenes with Stanley Tucci who plays Paul Child really plumbs the generally peaceful and supportive world which all artists crave for from which those incredibly detailed and scrumptious recipes sprang. Cooking not for hobby, not to pass time, but as work, as profession. We get the real Julia Child from Streep.

The plot has two pegs: in the first one, we see Julia Child newly arrived in 1950s Paris with her husband in the Foreign Service finding her way around and quickly discovering that mastering the art of French cooking is her real calling. Ephron depicts the cultural differences between the French and the Americans with wit and substance. Ha ha, the president of Le Cordon Bleu laughs in her face, you will never be a real cook. Americans cannot cook. Child sticks on and the rest is history. If Julia is threatened by national and cultural prejudices, the young Julie has multiple anxieties working against her: a frustrated writer she works  for the Lower Manhattan Development Bureau answering phone calls from irate relatives of those who died in the September 11th attack. Her mother “who is from Texas” is also particularly dense in not understanding Julie’s dismay at her inability to pursue her calling as a writer. But we see her great deftness at cooking. You are a good cook, her husband tells her; why don’t you write a blog about food? So, in a fit of self-pity tinged with decision she allows Eric her husband to set her up with a blog; she gives herself a deadline of one year to try all of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She starts a blog called the Julie/Julia Project: Nobody Here But Servantless American Cooks where she documents her daily experiments cooking Julia Child’s recipes in her tiny New York kitchen. In between are interspersed little stories of herself, Eric and her work; Ephron makes the blogging almost as obsessive as the cooking itself.  Ephron clearly knows about obsessions.  Ephron draws thematic parallels between Julie’s life and Julia’s life to weave the narrative together and while this is an old narrative device it does work in this movie; at times I felt the time lag between the two plots but that is a minor diversion in an otherwise tight screenplay. Anyway, Julia gets her French cook book published by Knopf in America after Houghton Mifflin turns it down, and Julie wins an editorial landslide victory after the New York Times spots her food blog and the Julie/Julia Project becomes the center of media attention. 65 messages on the answering machine, her husband tells her, from agents and editors who want her to turn her blog into a proper book. If you want to be happy, learn to cook, learn to write. Why does cooking make you happy? Why does writing make you happy? It is something of you that you are giving to others; that is why. Doesn’t  life start with a gift of food?

At the Academy Awards, Stanley Tucci who introduced Streep with her 16th Best Actress nomination said that there should be a limit on how many times an actor can be nominated for an Oscar. Don’t, I say. What a blessed actress! A true method actor, she never repeats herself, and her Julia Child will remain a bonafide Streep character. Likewise, Amy Adams and Chris Messina give wonderful performances as the young couple. I have always felt distant from the roles Tucci plays, but I have to admit, he is simply wonderful in this movie as Julia Child’s husband. I have always been a fan of Nora Ephron’s movies; she does the New York chick flick genre well. Ephron’s real genius is in spotting the ideal actors to play her yuppie characters; we come away actually liking and caring for these couples with their Crate and Barrel furniture and Dean De Luca cheeses. Plus, for all their yuppiness, Ephron’s characters, just like ingredients in a good recipe, never substitute the real with the fake, or shortchange the complex steps with canned goods and short cuts. A good movie, go see it nation.

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