Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Review of Julie & Julia

If you haven't caught it yet, please do so. It's very good. And it paints bloggers (like the one pictured) in a flattering light.

The review appeared in the September issue of ICON and is reprinted with permission. (Thanks, Trina.)

Julie & Julia is pleasant, and not in a euphemistic way, like a trip to the dentist's or a visit to see Uncle Tyrone in the extended care facility. The movie is sprightly, wise, and fun without being obnoxious. In short, it's the opposite of director/writer Nora Ephron's output over the last decade.

The movie weaves together the life stories of Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and Julia Child (Meryl Streep). In 2002, Powell is at the soggy point in her life, a failed novelist and current cubicle prisoner. She's about to turn 30, lives over a pizzeria in Queens, and her awful friends are busy becoming the female version of Gordon Gekko. Inspired by a friend's blog and in need of completing something, Julie decides to blog about her year-long quest to make all 524 recipes in Child's seminal book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In her words, Powell becomes a "government worker by day, renegade foodie by night."

Julia Child wasn't born Julia Child. In 1949, she's in Paris with her cherished husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) and having a grand time, but without a hint of structure. She tries hat making, French lessons. Nothing takes, so she decides to try cooking school. After all, eating is one of her favorite things, so why not pursue it. Especially in Paris.

Both women share more than a mutual love of butter. They're renegades. For Child, a woman pushing 40, it was an uphill battle at cooking school (complete with a cranky dean), and it took years for Mastering the Art of French Cooking to get published. Child and her sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch) came from a conservative California family that embraced McCarthyism and domestic order. Though blogs have become as acceptable as ankle tattoos on grandmothers, in 2003 starting one was sometimes met with puzzlement by others (i.e., Powell's mom). Powell's laser focus on maintaining the blog, which becomes a mainstream success, inflates her ego, putting a strain on her marriage to the saintly Eric (Chris Messina from Away We Go). He wants a wife in the real world, not an online personality.

To her vast credit, Ephron makes a seamless movie, keeping the storylines separate but equal in finding the women's common ground. There's nothing gimmicky or cute here, just two stories of two likeable women finding their stride. It's the best kind of feel-good movie, and a rebirth for Ephron. I had no idea she was capable of returning to quality after being responsible for the likes of Michael (1996), You've Got Mail (1998), and Bewitched (2005). Those films played like adaptations of gaudy, poorly written greeting cards.

The performances rise to the occasion. Are you shocked to read that Streep is terrific? Honestly, what's the point of writing anything complimentary when she's made the superb routine since the Carter administration? Like Frank Langella in last year's Frost/Nixon, Streep takes an oft-imitated cultural icon and makes her human. The performance is amazing in its casualness. There's no trace of effort as Streep reveals Child's free spirit and gregarious nature. It helps that Ephron stays out of the way, avoiding a lot of lengthy montages honoring Child's pluck and "I'm going to rule the school" speeches. Adams hits all the right notes as Powell. You get the feeling Powell is racing against time as she tries to live up to her potential and maintain her girlish enthusiasm. I'm hoping Adams, on quite the hot streak with this film, Sunshine Cleaning, and Doubt, will keep finding new and inventive ways to play cute and overwhelmed. After all, the line between winsome appeal and post-1995 Meg Ryan is thin.

As the ladies' husbands, Messina is rock solid, but Tucci, delivering a potent combination of compassion and warmth, is indispensable. Whenever he and Streep are together, the movie details with shattering poignancy how a person and a marriage achieve greatness: You need to love a passion or your spouse more than you love yourself. Attempting both simultaneously is beyond difficult, which makes accomplishing both all the more rewarding. Beneath its pleasant, sunny exterior, Julie & Julia is a stirring ode to commitment. [PG-13]

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