Dir. Nora Ephron
I don't know about you but when I get in the kitchen things start happening. If I haven't made the recipe before you can count on a lot of swearing and no! no! no!'s but an inevitable trance-like state comes over me. Perhaps it is the precision of working with a recipe mixed with a few last minute “I hope to God this comes out alright” alterations but there is something about cooking that is wholly absorbing. It's a process and one that can be either extremely rewarding or completely devastating. What is often forgotten in the age of microwave dinners and Thanksgiving leftovers is that cooking is an art; a bi-lateral interaction between person and form. That fact is at the heart of Nora Ephron's 2009 film Julie and Julia: a poignant and timely renewal of the romantic comedy with an intrinsically satisfying psychology.
The first thing that strikes the viewer about Julie and Julia is its binary narrative. Beginning after WWII in Paris, Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is a recently married upper-middle class woman who is bored. After experimenting in a few other fields Julia settles on a cooking class where she quickly eclipses her male classmates, incrementally discovering new opportunities in the world of food. Julia endeavors to design a French cookbook for “servantless” middle class Americans. On the other side of the world more than 40 years later Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a servantless American living with her husband in Queens. Her life as a social worker in post-9/11 New York is exhausting. Nearly at her wit's end, Julie lands on her pet project which also becomes the premise for her slice of the storyline: cook the entirety of Julia Child's “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, all 524 recipes, in one year. At this point the lives of the two women, separated by thousands of miles and several decades, converge elegantly and their frequencies begin to resonate as one.
Coincidence is not a word that describes this portion of the film. Rather than inaptly suggesting a certain level of parallelism between two characters, Julie and Julia naturally weaves together key similarities between the two women. On both sides, the relationships between the characters are preformed. This is not a “boy meets girl then proceeds to wins girl over in an hour and a half” romantic comedy. When we meet Julie and Julia they are already cemented in the relationships that will carry them through to the end of the film. The dominant male aggressor, passive female recipient relationship does not exist in this film. In a genre nearly monopolized by men it is so refreshing to see strong, independent women. Not only that, these are women who, while being totally in love with their respective husbands, are enamored not with a man or even another human but with an art. For the most part men play ancillary roles. They are morally supportive, witty, and capable. Both male leads, Julie's husband Eric (Chris Messina) and Julia's husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), are nuanced and gracefully subtle characters. They have dreams and aspirations but are mature enough to realize that they are not the main characters of this story.
The drawback is that this format nearly keeps the film from having any dramatic arc at all. While Julia fights to get her book published and bring French cooking to America, struggling with her home country's pre-occupied, stay-at-home mom style of cooking which is simple, quick and entirely lifeless, Julie's presence is comparably vapid. Her lifestyle and storyline are terribly sedentary. Either she is consoling the grieved over the phone in her office, blogging on her home computer, or eating. Her drama can even be difficult to understand if one is not willing to submit themselves to the hopelessness of Julie's existence. New York is an alienating and lonely place, even when one is neither alienated nor alone. Her friends are growing up and becoming successful and she is deliberately portrayed as being younger and less mature. She is writhing under the crushing burden of a boring job which devours most of her time. Her blog, the appropriate medium of a failed writer, where she publishes her culinary introspections, paired with her cooking is her escape. Bordering on addiction she begins to neglect her husband until his misery (which is coarsely entrenched in his not getting laid) upends Julie's daydream. This is really the only point where the film borders on being unconvincing. Writer/director Ephron weaves an enthralling story out of such a plain life and keeps the viewer's attention even when it is framed next to Meryl Streep's characteristically on-point portrayal of Julia Child, that the moment in which Julie's husband leaves her we suffer from emotional whiplash. It would seem from the pacing and organic passion, built piecemeal from the ground up, that all of a sudden Ephron realized she had to insert some kind of tension or else the movie was destined to remain on one plane throughout. It is vaguely forced and quickly settled, resolving back to the film's naturally uplifting tone.
Cooking has come a long way since Julia Child first exploded onto the scene. Julia introduced to women all over America the indulging and engrossing world of home cooking. Her impact on female independence cannot be overestimated. However, Julie and Julia is not a feminist film, at least not in a textbook sense. Its more of a film about the exceptional qualities inherent in ordinary lives, a concept relatively common in art but rarely displayed as gracefully as Ephron has done here. Julie and Julia is the culmination of a measured directorial hand, precise dramatic ingredients, and a few contemporary inclusions added to enhance dramatic affect and appeal. Ephron clearly knows how to handle all of her supplies and is not afraid to experiment. The resulting fare is delicious and nourishing. Bon appetit.