Saturday, August 08, 2009

Ephron's "Julie & Julia" - the foodie bores

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in Nora Ephron's beloved "Julie & Julia": Is this PBS or "I Love Lucy"?
There's this scene in "Julie & Julia."

"Isn't she adorable?," the immobilized Julie Powell (Amy Adams) asks her husband (Chris Messina) while watching an antique black-&-white PBS episode of Julia Child (Meryl Streep) cooking on-air and goofing off.

Huh? There are a lot of words to describe Julia Child, but "adorable" - writer-director Nora Ephron's word of choice - isn't the one that comes immediately to mind. "Strange" would fit. "Curious" is another politcally-correct way to put it. Ephron has been on talk shows of late to hype her movie and to advance the propaganda that Julia Child "changed things" (largely through her inordinant use of butter). But the fact is, she became a cooking pehnomenom not because she was a great cook but because she was good television. She was a "character" in every sense of the word. Strange. Curious. Graham Kerr was another cooking oddity of the era (circa the 1970s). He was also good television, and I'm confident that there were a lot of much better chefs who resented all the fawning attention that these two "characters" commanded and received. (Susan Boyle, who actually kind of resembles Child, is the latest example of this craze, only she makes beautiful music, instead of beautiful food.)

But no one fawns like Ephron, a self-proclaimed foodie if not a very good film writer or director. (She is, however, a great writer of short stories.) Her film, which has been receiving knee-jerk love letters from critics, is facile, slapdash and terribly repetitive. Once the conceit is introduced - a dual-biopic of Child and Powell, the young woman inspired and shaped by Child, and the ever-so-slight parallel of their lives - it is repeated over and over again ad nauseum. The first 20 minutes or so of "Julia & Julia" are brisk and breezy, but then tedium sets in and it becomes tiresome.

To call it episodic would be high praise. Ephron's pacing of her material makes it feel like a season's worth of memorable moments from a popular sitcom that have been edited down and strung together. This is most glaring in the extended sequence that recounts Julia Child dealing with sexism at Le Cordon Bleu and promptly showing up all the men there. It's like something out of an old "I Love Lucy" episode. (Remember the one set on the chocolate-candy assembly line? That's it.)

Serious bits are infrequently tossed in as if Ephron were seasoning a stew with extra salt. We learn that Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), Julia's husband, was brought up before Senator Joe McCarthy on unAmerican activities, but all the panel asks him is if he's a homosexual. Then, it's dropped. Later, when she learns that her sister Dorothy (the invaluable Jane Lynch) is pregnant, the heretofore doltish Julia breaks down in Paul's arms sobbing, implying that she could never have children of her own.

But wait!

The film makes it clear that Julia Child was a virgin until she was 40 and married late in life. And the movie also makes a big deal about Julia and Paul's active sex life (supposedly, intercourse every day after lunch - yeah, right), but what we see on screen makes us wonder if their relationship was really just a marriage of convenience. Hmmm...

Julie, meanwhile, works - unhappily - for a bureaucratic goverment office set up after 9/11 to deal with inquiries and complaints. She's too good for this job, see, even though she's the only empathetic one in her office. Again, more padding. For good measure, Ephron tosses in a couple gratuitous jokes against the Republicans and they are so low that they even bothered me, and I'm a diehard liberal Democrat.


As for the performances, Streep has, predictably, received most of the acclaim - nay, make that all of it - but Adams is actually better, simply by virtue of the fact that she (1) struggles with lesser material and (2) is playing a genuine human being.

Streep resorts to a shameless impersonation. The ham in this film isn't on the table. It's a naked parody, but it's not completely Streep's fault: Julia Child was a caricature who doesn't inspired much, if any, subtlety.

Still, Ephron does her star a hugh disservice by including Dan Aykroyd's own impersonation of Child from one of his old "Saturday Night Live" sketches (above), which is every bit as good as what Streep is doing.

He might even be somewhat ... better. Blasphemy!

"Julie & Julia" is a companionable film, easy to watch, but it's also a missed opportunity, its supporters too love-struck to notice.

20 comments:

Barry said...

Thank YOU! I think Streep was TERRIBLE - 2 hours of the same trill, over and over..I hated th is movie, because I know and love the real Julia Childs. Also hate Julie story - find it extremely incredible - can't even buy ingredients for a recipe in one day, much less get all the cooking done for a new recipe..Her blog is really all about her, not about cooking at all. Really nice to read this sane review, after everyone piling on the cookies, even the New York Times..Plus, Ms. Ephron's neck is fine! It will get a LOT worse (saw her do her thing with streep on Charlie Rose - she "wants people to cook'..right! she wants to make money.. Hated this movie..

Clint said...

I was never certain if Child's bizarre personality was the real thing or an affectation that she adopted for the public and TV. I agree with you that her success stems mostly from the fact she was good TV. Yes, a real character.

Stephen said...

I was surprised by how the film defaulted to a predictable Ephron-esque narrative resolution, with the usual unearned happy ending. A darn shame.

Alex said...

Joe- Well, I guess I disagree with you only in the sense that the spirit of the film seemed true throughout, even as "the usual" (as the previous poster put it) took over. One might say the same of many films, not just Ephron's but many comtemporary movies and even a few from earlier eras.

joe baltake said...

Alex- We agree to disagree

Nicholas said...

I’m still wrestling with the second half of J&J, though it’s quite funny and contains that those gorgeous scenes of Paris. My problems occur when I think about it somewhat realistically. It is a true story/stories, after all. Are we to believe that both women's lives were that cartoonish? And yet it seems pretty accurate to me.

Nora Ephron said...

Sexist pigs!!!

Moviezzz said...

I enjoyed the film but often felt like I was watching someone do a Julia Child impersonation for much of the time, rather than just getting to know a character. Maybe because of that, I liked the Amy Adams segment more (but then again, I'm more of an Amy Adams than Meryl Streep fan anyway).

Flickgrrl said...

Much as I love contrarians, I completely enjoyed J & J -- on many levels. As the contrast between a pioneer and a settler, between a woman who kept her eye on the goal and one who moaned, and about the tricky business of marriage. I love Streep, I love that she can't believe she's a movie star, I love her affectionate portrait of an odd (and definirely not boned) duck. For me, it was pure pleasure.

joe baltake said...

Well put, Carrie! While we definitely disagree on the merits and virtues of the movie, we concur on Streep's delight and seeming surprise with being a movie star. She's downright school-girl giddy about it and she seems to be enjoying the ride. For the record, I think she's our greatest current actress. She's always fascinating to watch and she's always huge fun in a comedy. I guess that, last year, I was where you're at now. I couldn't comprehend the criticism that she received for her performance in "Mamma Mia!" A.O. Scott actually called it amateurish. (I may be paraphrasing here, but that's the gist of what he said.) For me, yes, she was playing it broad, but in the spirit of the ABBA songs themselves. A good fit. It's the same approach that she's taking with Julia Child. Only, this year, it grates - and, as a result, I know how Tony felt last year.

Susan said...

You nailed it, baby! Good thing we had free popcorn.

joe baltake said...

FYI

Here's A.O. Scott's exact assessment of Meryl Streep in "Mamma Mia!," as it ran in The New York Times:

"It is safe to say that Ms. Streep gives the worst performance of her career — safe to say because it is so clearly what she intends, and she is not an actress capable of failure. There is a degree of fascination in watching an Oscar-winning Yale School of Drama graduate mug and squirm, shimmy and shriek and generally fill every moment with antic, purposeless energy, as if she were hogging the spotlight in an eighth-grade musical."

About a week later, one of the Times' theater critics, Charles Isherwood, had this to say:

"I wouldn’t want to say Ms. Streep gives the worst performance of her career, as some aver, but it has got to be the scariest. When she is called upon to sing the title song — just after stumbling upon three ex-boyfriends she hasn’t seen for years — she flies into a spasmodic frenzy that concludes with her writhing on the roof of a goat house. Later she sings a syrupy ballad, 'The Winner Takes It All,' with an operatic intensity that’s unsettling. It’s not exactly 'Rose’s Turn,' after all, or even 'My Man' from “Funny Girl.'"

Moviejunkie32 said...

I liked it. Maybe I was generous because I love to cook and I love movies that make fun of snobby Frenchmen.
Link to my review:
http://www.atlanticcityweekly.com/arts-and-entertainment/movie-reviews/Fun-For-Foodies-53054577.html

Teri said...

I hated it, too. Total caricature by Streep (well done but caricature nonetheless), Amy Adams was nothing short of annoying, the script was predictable and repetitive, Tucci a straw dog and obviously cast because he is short, the guy playing Adams' husband needs to repeat Acting 101 ("OK, Eric, you're a husband who really, really likes what his wife just cooked and he's really hungry, see? So he eats like a pig, chews with his mouth open and spews food all over the place. Got it? OK -- Action!"), and the squealing, jumping-up-and-down vision of Childs an unbelieveable take on a made-for-PBS-oddity that the Childs persona was. Awful movie, simply awful. Time for Efron to retire.

Mehren said...

Joe, another spot on review. I'm in desperate need of a new, good movie to watch and there aren't any! (I'm locked in the burbs where good movies aren't even released any more). What I find frustrating about bad movies like Julia/Julie is the amount of wasted human endeavor and money. I can't help thinking about what the movie could have been. I want art and entertainment, not celluloid crap. There are true artists who can't get financial backing to make great movies and then there are loads of money being thrown at crappy movies and crappy actors. I just want a moment of movie bliss. Well, I didn't get my moment from Nora Ephron (insular artist that she is). Did you read the article about Julia Child in the New Yorker recently? Great photo of her and Paul in the bathtub and her in the beauty of her youth. Anyway, enough of my rant. Love your work. Glad you haven't retired from your passion yet!

Melinda Welsh said...

Ha!

palmer said...

what a concise - and insightful - review!
the typos drove me nuts, but the criticisms and compliments were all deserved.
joe: newspaper copy editors are losing jobs every day. hire one!

joe baltake said...

Palmer-

Thanks for the generous words. Re copy editors, they were the bane of my existence as a newspaper critic for longer than I care to remember. Professional nit-pickers! I'm glad to be liberated and I flaunt my typos with honor, I say!

-J

Cary said...

Good Day!!! thepassionatemoviegoer.blogspot.com is one of the most outstanding innovative websites of its kind. I enjoy reading it every day. I will be back.

satya said...

i agree with stephen...mate, this is the worst ever movie i've watched in recent years. what a waste of talent for Streep! but for her who would even suffer to watch it? get real,Ms ephron. do hat making or something...please retire