Friday, August 7, 2009

Me Want Food Part II: Julie & Julia

The other night for dinner I had a heaping mound of mussels steeped in fresh tomatoes, butter and white wine with a stack of perfectly grilled crusty bread. Sure, I didn't actually prepare this meal for myself, but after years watching my mom cook, watching TV folks cook and actually reading a few books (and websites...shhhh!), I have no doubt that I could knock out some dynamite muscles for sure. Earlier this year I butchered by first whole octopus and my relationship with canned tomatoes has evolved in ways that continue to surprise me.

And then there's this movie thing that has taken me out of the kitchen multiple nights a week during peak opening seasons, which oddly enough has not made me skinnier. But this week, both worlds collided. Julie & Julia, which opens tonight nationwide, is the first of presumably many feature films based on a blog. I think it's actually based on a book based on a blog, but is that really any better? Julie Powell, struggling writer with a terrible day job, aims to regain control of her own life through cooking and blogging. She cooks her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, all 524 recipes in just 365 days, blogging along the way. Director Nora Ephron, who adapted the screenplay from Powell's book and the autobiographies of Child and Prud'homme blends Powell's newbie outer borough adventures with Child's early cooking days in 1949 Paris and the road to publication of the first French cookbook in English.

I'm told by a friend who has read the book that Julie Powell, the author of the aforementioned blog and book comes off as kind of a bitch who smokes and drinks a whole lot as she elbows her way through a culinary bible with the added constraints of a crappy and really tiny kitchen. Please note I see nothing wrong with any of those three things in combination with cooking, they are natural matches. In the film however, Amy Adams as Powell, who refers to herself as a bitch at some point is anything but. Wine and cocktails abound in the film set immediately after September 11th and before the great smoke ban of 2003, so Ephron wisely chose to succumb to new smoke free standards of an enlightened and Giuliani'd NYC. After all, Mad Men smokes enough for both the movie and TV industries. So, except for Mad Men, smoking should be reserved for evil-doers or characters in the process of making a very bad decision, like shooting someone or attempting some suicidal stunt, a declaration to The Man that he/she is in control of his/her own destiny, damn it, so queue the canyon jump, trigger the explosives and toss me your Zippo even though no one carries those things anymore. But, obviously, I digress. Adams' Julie is just too cute. With a pixie haircut that would make the rest of us look like Dudley Moore, she's lovely, clever, obsessive as most new bloggers are and she's sort of boring. Luckily, the film is not just about Julie Powell and her rise from lowly office worker to Blog-Star-Extraordinaire - it's also about Julia Child.

Adams as Julie Powell. Not pictured: Chris Messina as her very caring and very ordinary looking husband.

It actually would have been nice for the film version of Julie Powell to be a chain-smoking, whiskey pounding she-devil since Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in this film is anything but. Sure, she smokes and eats her weight in butter daily, but Streep plays it so comical and light while allowing pain to shine through - it's impossible not to love Julia. I think that's actually said in the film by her husband, played by Stanley Tucci. Streep in lifts and curve enhancing dresses towers over a dapper Tucci and somehow indications of their old people sex isn't at all gross, it's lovely. Ephron shows us what happy marriages, and childless ones at that can be - something rarely attempted in film. Rarely attempted of course because what are female characters to do if they are not attempting to either find, win back, divorce or exact revenge upon a man?

Tucci & Streep as The Child's. I don't get why synchronized public toasting fell out of fashion.

Julia begins her Parisian gastronomical journey to fulfill her own desires and to feed her insatiable appetite for life. Luckily, her hubby seems to appreciate food as well, but his job at the American Embassy keeps him out of the kitchen. The streets of post-war Paris are deliciously recreated as the enthusiastic American lumbers through open-air markets making friends with shop-owners and butchering the French language all at once. Between Streep's mannerism and Ephron's angles, Child's casual oafishness is captured, endearing her to everyone around her and easily winning over those of us sitting in the dark together eating the abominations that are theater popcorn and Sour Patch Kids. But, please have no misconceptions about this version of Julia for she is Julie's fantasy, even referred to as her "imaginary friend". This Julia Child is what we'd all like to remembered for - all the good stuff and absolutely no mention of odd or disturbing peculiarities we may have had in life. It's a lighthearted comedy after all.

As the film moves back and forth from Julia in Paris to Julie in Queens with her husband and blog, one can't help but notice that one of these mini-movies is a little better than the other. Julie's story is sweet featuring early morning blogging, late night cooking, reading her first non-friend/relative commenter, sacrificing sex for food and for once finishing something for change are all lovely very relatable notions. It is a pleasant enough device to butt Julie and Julia's lives up against each other. Julia about to reinvent American home cooking, her husband about to be strung through the McCarthy machine with Julie and her blogging. History has elevated Julia's story making Julie's seem that much smaller and inconsequential, but the minutiae and drawn out process of publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking also reminds us that big things take way longer than history likes to talk about and that skill along with luck has everything to do with it.

"But, Megan," you ask, "it is a cheesy movie? 'Cause it sounds sort of cheesy." My answer is a resounding, "Yes." With no real conflict in the film save some dropped dishes and rejection letters, not a lot happens and what does is usually about how great food is or how awesome Julia Child was. And in this case, that's OK. It works. It's heartwarming, shot well and features classic Ephron dialogue. I can forgive a few forced "bon appetit's" and references to Long Island City as if it were in the nether regions of Queens or Brooklyn for that matter. It's like 2 stops from Midtown, people, get over yourself (and Brooklyn already).

Julie & Julia
open tonight
123 mins
Dir.: Nora Ephron
Screenplay: Nora Ephron
Starring: Amy Adams, Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci
Rated PG-13: Someone actually says "cock" when not referring to a bird. Scandalous!