Judge Daryl Loomis quit culinary school the second he was instructed to bone a duck.
524 recipes, 365 days
Welcome to the 21st Century, a time where anybody can write anything they want and publish it as a blog. It's a democratization of publishing, and I'm all for it. You can't hope to get paid for blogging, but those rare cases where bloggers get book deals are a dream come true for the writers. However, none of that speaks to the quality of either the blog or the resulting book. For the first time, we have a movie based on a book based on a blog, a questionable move made a little better by the very capable writer/director Nora Ephrom (Heartburn), with a brilliant performance from Meryl Streep (Silkwood). But not all is well in the blogosphere, as Julie & Julia is a dish that looks better than it tastes.
Facts of the Case
Before Julia Child (Streep) changed the way Americans viewed cooking and eating, she was just a mid-level bureaucrat married to OSS-agent Paul (Stanley Tucci, Monkey Shines). She got to live in Paris and hob-nob with ambassadors, but she was bored. After trying many things, she realized she was born to cook. Through her skill, pluck, a supportive husband, and a little luck, Julia sold her cookbook and became the face of French cuisine in America.
Before Julie Powell (Amy Adams, Doubt) had a movie made about her blog, she was just a mid-level bureaucrat living above a pizza joint in Queens with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Her life was decent, but she was bored. She idolized Julia Child and loved to cook, so one day decided she'd cook each of the 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of one year. Not only that, she was going to blog about it. With her skill, pluck, a supportive husband, and a little luck, she got a book deal and the movie I'm now reviewing.
Why not just make a movie about Julia Child? I'm not a huge fan of the biopic, but it's a pretty popular genre that racks up the awards and ticket sales. Instead of sticking with a single story—one that has both a high-interest subject and two masterful performances—the producers decided to include a parallel plot. The story of Julie Powell is one of yuppie ennui; her boredom holds no interest for me and the performances are a far cry from their counterparts. Too bad it's here, because the Julia Child story is truly intriguing.
Julie & Julia isn't about Julia Child, much as I wish it otherwise. Powell didn't write about Child, she wrote about herself. Her blog, The Julie/Julia Project and subsequent book, Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, describe her trials and triumphs under this self-imposed deadline. There's nothing wrong with making projects for oneself, but Powell's work is as insular and narcissistic as you can get. Her self-obsession translates well onto film, but that doesn't make her any more palatable. Powell, for all this work, hasn't actually done anything. She gave readers an amusing distraction and became one of the faces of amateur foodies, but her contribution is a pebble next to the mountain of Julia Child. Everybody needs personal accomplishment in their lives, but putting that up on the silver screen is dubious, at best. To their credit, Amy Adams and Chris Messina turn in spot-on performances, though that amounts to a litany of meltdowns on Adams' part and ineffectual supportiveness for Messina.
Two-thirds of Julie & Julia focuses on the Powells, but the final third makes the film worth watching. The events depicted in Julia Child's life are taken from her own book, My Life in France, but Meryl Streep's masterful interpretation of the character is an idealization from Powell's mind. In her fantasy, Powell and Child's lives run parallel; her successes and failures concurring with those of her idol. Much as this feels like a contrivance in Ephrom's screenplay, Streep and Tucci deliver masterful performances which overshadow the lack of realism in her treatment. Meryl Streep's portrayal of the awkwardly charming Child is one the best performances of her career. She nails the voice and gestures of her subject across the board, but this is more than mere impersonation. Her smiling eyes gleam with a lust for life and her voice lilts with emotion. Streep is perfectly believable, perfectly affecting, and her chemistry with Stanley Tucci is beautiful. They act as a unit in every aspect of their lives, each playing off the other and acting as advisor in their darkest times. Paul Child and Eric Powell are essentially the same character, but Tucci adds volumes to the film, with a character and performance that much more likeable and believable than his counterpart. Jane Lynch, turns in a brilliant supporting role as Julia's sister, Dorothy McWilliams, who is described by her daughter in the special features as "a force of nature." It's an excellent way to describe Lynch's performance, crafting a character as charming, as funny, and often bigger than her little sister. I spent most of my time with the Powells yearning to spend more with the Childs. Sadly, they are secondary to Julie's blogging.
The Blu-ray release of Julie & Julia is fantastic; the best hi-def release I've reviewed for Verdict. The video transfer is brilliant, accentuating the beauty of the film. There may never have been a post-war Paris as bright as the one Julia and Paul live in here, the colors popping off the screen. The homes and kitchens of each character were painstakingly recreated and the detail in the image proves outstanding. Most importantly, the food looks terrific—the meat glistens with grease, the vegetables shine with color, and the aspic looks perfectly revolting, as it should. Some have said the film will make you hungry, but watching the aspic scene is an appetite suppressant in and of itself. Despite being a heavy with dialogue piece, the DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio mix comes through crisp and well-balanced, with nice spatial separation in all speakers and the surrounds filled with ambient riches.
We have a hearty meal of extras, much of which is exclusive to Blu-ray, so this is definitely the version fans will want to purchase. As for the features shared between the BD and SD releases, we start with a snoozer of a commentary from Nora Ephrom. She knows how to write and direct, but fails to realize that an audio commentary requires one to talk about the movie…or, well, anything really. There were times I thought I had accidentally switched the commentary off, but no, Ephrom is just really quiet. Much better is the making-of featurette: Secret Ingredients: Creating Julie & Julia, a 30 minute look at the film from every angle. It's one of the better of its kind, with everybody involved—including Julie Powell herself, who is very happy that they got somebody "tiny" to play her—getting a chance to voice their views of the film.
The Blu-ray-exclusive features go into as much depth as you could ever want for the film.
Family and Friends Remember Julia Child spends 45 minutes with everybody they could find with a story about Julia. It's glorification for sure, but she was such an interesting figure and the stories people tell are hilarious, so all the idolization she receives is forgiven.
Julia's Kitchen veers into too-much-information territory. In it, the people responsible for the transfer of Julia Child's kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution get to talk for what seems like an eternity (it's only 20 minutes) about the minutiae of washing and transporting can openers and ladles. I'd love to see the museum exhibit, but only the most obsessive fans will appreciate this one.
Cooking Lessons: Now we're talking about special features I can use. Five cooking demonstration show us how to make scrambled eggs (in this case, more complicated than you think), poached eggs, Hollandaise sauce, short ribs, and lobster. Four out of the five are actually useful. The lobster recipe is completely worthless in any kitchen, but the rest are completely doable. Some are taken from Julia Child's show and some are more recent from relatively famous chefs. There should have been five hours of this stuff.
Finally, we have the BD-Live feature: MovieIQ. I was skeptical that this informational functionality would be intrusive, but I came away impressed. This is a running at-will pop-up screen which provides cast and crew information, trivia, artist and song listings, and the ability to email recipes straight from the film to yourself for later use. If you don't have the book, it's especially handy, but even if you do, it's nice for quick reference.
Two-thirds of Julie & Julia features a bored yuppie trying to make her life seem less bleak than it is. One-third features a woman at the top of her class, performed by a master of her craft. That third makes the entire film worth watching, and then some. On Blu-ray, it's even better, and certainly the version fans should seek out.
Despite the film's many problems, Meryl Streep's masterful performance exonerates Julie & Julia entirely. Bon Appétit!
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