Friday, August 7, 2009

Half-baked: Julie & Julia

We start with two Americans in postwar Paris, Julia (Meryl Streep) and Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), ardent foodies and happy in mid-life love, swooning over the richness of their new culinary and cultural digs while Paul shows his photos and continues his diplomatic career and Julia figures out what to do with her life between mouth-watering meals and afternoon delights—healthy appetites in the kitchen are matched, we learn, in the bedroom. Tucci’s terrific as always while Streep goes beyond deft impersonation, at her comic best and captivatingly sensual in a goofy sort of way. So far, so good. Or at the very least effortlessly diverting. If only it weren’t for the other half of the movie.

Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia isn’t a bio-pic about Julie Child but rather an attempt to craft a diptych from two separate stories of self-realization, that of Child’s discovery of her finesse with cuisine and charisma with instruction and of Queens-based Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and her discovery that maybe she really is the writer she always dreamed she’d be. To say that the former trajectory overshadows the latter would be a gross understatement. Child is a beloved and singular cultural icon and influential author. Powell started a hit blog based on following Child’s recipes. More to the point, Streep and Tucci’s portrait of marriage is moving, complex and resonant, bursting with unspoken negotiations between lovers who each convey an ample sense of history both separately and as a unit. The sense of togetherness found between Adams and Chris Messina, who pays Julie’s amiably Tony Danza-like husband Eric, is by contrast vacuous, propped up by tedious boilerplate squabbles and cuddling on the couch. It doesn’t help that Julie herself, characterized here as openly self-centered and seemingly without much of anything of her own to say, is basically insufferable. And it takes some pretty lousy writing to make Amy Adams insufferable.

The concept of Julie & Julia is, I think, inherently flawed, and Ephron’s method of connecting Child’s memoir My Life in France with Powell’s book is largely facile and undernourished. Their stories evoke parallels in only the most obvious ways, and Ephron has a tough time sculpting a satisfying movie out of either of them. The imbalance is exacerbated by stereotypical romanticizing of Paris and dismissal of dreary old Queens, which, granted, is hardly the most beautiful of the five boroughs but is not without its appeal either. Julie & Julia seems all too content to stay on the surface of things, to be all glaze and no filling, and it largely comes down to Streep, Tucci and a few other stellar costars to make this at least half of a good movie.

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