Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” underscores the Julie & Julia scene where Julie (Amy Adams) is called “lobster killer” by her husband as she prepares a dish from Julia Child’s cookbook. It’s an inane music-movie idea, but the Heads classic gives this pedestrian film a couple minutes of genuine art—and fun. Surely director Nora Ephron nixed using The B-52s’ “Rock Lobster” because that trash-pop epiphany violates her bourgie taste—and snobbery explains why Julie & Julia was made at all.
Alas, Julie & Julia really is about nothing deeper than the different life paths of Julia Child, the pioneering American-born chef who brought French cuisine to the consciousness of the American public, and the Amherst-educated yuppie who used Child’s book, Mastering
the Art of French Cooking, as the raison d’etre of her Salon-based blog. That blog gave Julie Powell (Adams) access to fame, and that’s all Ephron understands. (Will Paris Hilton be Ephron’s next subject?) This movie doesn’t match the delights of such sensual/aesthetic food movies as Le Grande Bouffe, Babette’s Feast, Tampopo or even Woman on Top. It merely dramatizes Powell and Child in contrasting routes to media success via book and blog publishing, TV and film celebrity.
How odd, given the complication of Ephron blending Child’s post-WWII years in France with Powell’s post-9/11 careerism. It intertwines time/space, but Ephron doesn’t go deeper into intellectual experience; she’s no Alain Resnais. Rather, she prizes the women’s rich dining privileges with only a glancing interest in their spiritual similarities. Pointless scenes of Child’s OSS-employee husband (Stanley Tucci) suffering McCarthy-era pressure are as insultingly superficial as the 9/11 trauma Julie endures on her way to making a chocolate soufflé. We’re actually expected to tolerate a scene where Julie complains about moving into a 900-square-foot apartment in Queens. (Julie’s retort “She’s a bitch.” “Who isn’t?” is Ephron’s only insight.)
Streep’s grandstanding Julia impersonation counters Adams’ ingénue sensitivity. “What an incredible actress!” a man exclaimed at a recent screening as the movie ended. Fact is, Streep can be a non-credible actress. Her tall, well-dressed Julia is basically comic mimicry, emphasizing middle-aged elegance and emulating the famous piping voice and hulking stance. Sometimes Streep’s facial tics recall her Ethel Rosenberg in Angels in America, also the same humorously timed mannerisms of her Nora Ephron impersonation in Heartburn. Streep is best, as in Mamma Mia’s “The Winner Takes It All” or Dark Matter, when she plumbs human feeling. This crafty performance stays as superficial as Dan Ackroyd’s Julia Child spoof on Saturday Night Live.
By rights, Julie (who calls Julia “A great, big Good Fairy”) should object to Ackroyd’s gross caricature. The tendency to mock this woman who was never silly but possessed class confidence and savoir-faire, prevents Ephron from achieving the lovely symbiosis of 84 Charing Cross Road, the very moving 1987 film where an American woman (Anne Bancroft) and a British bookseller (Anthony Hopkins) exchanged literary interests through letters—and the genius of passionate montage editing.
Ephron has Julie reason that Julia found joy in cooking. Too bad Ephron flubs showing the richness of skill or the sumptuousness of sensual pleasure. The final scene of Child in her kitchen turns her domestic archetype into a stultifying Jeanne Dielmann icon that could as easily represent female imprisonment. Ephron conveys neither gustatory joy nor cinematic know-how.
Julie & Julia
Directed by Nora Ephron
Runtime: 123 min.
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