Julie and Julia is so off-balance as to induce a kind of queasiness and confusion: How could these two stories be directed by the same woman?
Perhaps the blame rests with the 20-year-old gold standard for the genre, When Harry Met Sally…, wherein Ephron’s screenplay met Rob Reiner’s direction and the result was a perfect purée of urban sophistication, banter, interior design, good food and acidly funny observations. Of Ephron’s follow-ups, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail came close; Bewitched and Michael did not. Now, romantic comedies (most of them starring Katherine Heigl) are released almost weekly, each attempting the Harry-Sally mix and failing, often embarrassingly so. Most lack Ephron’s caustic wit and that unquantifiable, fizzy aspirational quality – the viewer must want to be in this relationship, too – upon which all rom-coms depend.
Half of Julie & Julia achieves such Ephron excellence, but half feels merely Ephron-esque, a garage sale imitation of a master. The film is so off-balance as to induce a kind of queasiness and confusion: How could these two movies, side by side, be written and directed by the same woman?
Meryl Streep plays Julia Child before she upended the world with her revolutionary 1961 cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. At the film’s opening, however, Child has just moved to post-Second World War Paris, where the U.S. State Department has transferred her bureaucrat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci). Child’s is a Paris of the senses – a movie Paris. In Ephron’s richly coloured images – all thick, touchable reds and greens – the nose gets a workout: smell the flowers stacked outside shops on cobblestone streets; the beurre blanc-drizzled fish in the restaurant; the wine uncorking.
Ephron is a cook herself, and she has transferred her love of food to the screen before, most notably in her book-cum-film Heartburn (about her break-up with Carl Bernstein, and the wonders of pie). Ephron’s fetishes, then, are in line with Child’s, who becomes another one of Meryl Streep’s giddy creations. (Is there an actress out there who looks to be having as much fun as Streep in the past few years?) Child is a tall, big-boned woman on the arm of a smaller, adoring husband. Laughing her way through Paris, sniffing storekeepers’ herbs and caressing breads, Child is such a vivacious, enthusiastic person that she is loved by everyone – even, as her husband marvels, Parisians!
But there’s a restlessness in Child: "What should I do?" she asks her husband, searching for a pastime, if not a career. Before marriage, she had been stationed around the world working for the Office of Strategic Services, and now, she’s a wife taking a hat-making course. To her query, Paul asks: "Well, what do you like?"
"Food!" she replies, fork to mouth, laughing.
The film cuts between dual awakenings: Child’s in 1940s Paris and Julie Powell’s in 2002 New York. Julie, played by Amy Adams, is approaching 30 and similarly unsettled, working a dead-end bureaucratic job helping 9/11 victims. Ephron adapted the film from separate memoirs by both Child and Powell, and with the latter, she’s up against a huge problem: Powell is a pain in the ass – a whiny, volatile personality prone to anguished, food-throwing fits over trivialities. She bitches about her job and her unbelievably awful, status-conscious "friends." (There is a bizarre luncheon, a kind of Sex and the City inversion, where every one of Julie’s friends belittles and attacks her for her lack of accomplishment. Sisters!) Ever the malcontent, Julie shrieks at her saintly husband, Eric (Chris Messina), about every "obstacle" in her path, from deboning a duck to having to live in a rundown apartment in Queens. The solution to her malaise is to cook her way through Julia Child’s book and blog about it.
Little connects these two women except for a name and a love of food. Both sides of the film romance the stomach as much as the heart, but in only one does the love truly radiate. Julia and Paul are a great on-screen couple, heavily in lust and sweetly respectful of one another. The joy that drives their late-in-life union bats away any sadness over a well-handled subtext about infertility. With Julie and Eric, there’s food, but less sex and more fighting. No romantic comedy should cause the audience to cheer a break-up, yet after watching Eric endure the umpteenth breakdown from the selfish, emotionally arrested Julie, I wanted to shout: "Get out while you can! We have a guest room!"
Perhaps in her own movie Julie Powell wouldn’t be so unappetizing, but here she provides an unintentional study in contrasts, not only personal but also professional. Powell is a contemporary e-brat who won the blog-fantasy lottery at 30 – blog equals book deal equals Meryl Streep movie; take that, Diablo Cody! Meanwhile, Child is a woman who worked diligently at her profession for years, elbowing her way into a men’s class at the prissy Le Cordon Bleu. It took Child and her co-authors years to finish the opus cookbook, a work of meticulous research and love, done on a typewriter with onionskin paper.
In contrast, Julie Powell barfs out her nightly ramblings on boeuf bourguignon etc. in a voice that’s typical of the blogosphere – at once superior and self-loathing; unflaggingly narcissistic – and hits Send. While Julia worries as her husband undergoes interrogations by Joseph McCarthy’s henchmen, Julie weeps because her mom isn’t supportive of her blog. The generation gap is wider than the Grand Canyon; on one side is hard work and artistry; on the other, entitlement.
Julia Child, who died in 2004 at age 91, told a reporter she was no fan of the Julie & Julia Project blog, a fact that makes you love her even more. But of course, you loved her already. It takes Ephron and Streep, both cooking at the best of their abilities, to serve the love, and it’s delicious.
Julie & Julia opens Aug. 7.
Katrina Onstad is the film columnist for CBCNews.ca.