Master the art of Julia Child – film review of Julie and Julia

I was looking forward to watching the new Meryl Streep film, Julie and Julia (opening on 8 October 2009 here in Australia; released in North America on 7 August).  Not because I am a particular fan of the character which she plays – Julia Child (I am not).  But I am a big fan of Meryl Streep.  And here’s the thing which I have not revealed before:  I once acted with Meryl Streep.  Yes, it’s true.  It was my first year of university at a place called Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.  She was a fourth year exchange student from Vassar College and I was a lowly first year (“freshman”, in the American lingo) student.  The play was a student production called “The Killer Ape”, and Meryl played my girlfriend.  The highlight of the play was my stereo blowing up and she jumped into my arms.  Cool, huh?

I thought then that she was an extraordinarily good actress.  But here’s the thing:  she never talked to me off-stage.

Oh well.  I forgot about her (as you do), until the release of Kramer versus Kramer, which I saw in Santa Barbara, California when it opened in 1979.  I kept watching this woman on screen, knowing that she looked familiar … until I realised that I had indeed met Meryl Streep before.

What can I say?  Fifteen Academy Award nominations (two wins) and 23 Golden Globes (and six wins) later … and surely more for her role in Julie and Julia; she is one of the greatest actresses in film history.

But enough about me.

Julie and Julia – directed by Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally, She Got Mail) is undoubtedly the most delightful and irrepressibly up-beat films of 2009.  It is also unmistakeably a film for women, particularly older women.  But I loved it thoroughly and completely.

Streep plays Julia Child, married to diplomat Paul Child (Stanley Tucci, a perfect foil for Streep).  The film starts off in 1948 and she is living in France with Paul, uncertain about what to do with her life (she is childless, an unspoken – but obvious theme in her life).  After considering hat-making, she settles on the one thing she really enjoys most – eating, and decides to learn French “cordon bleu” cooking.  Some years later, she finally publishes her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking (lesson to wanna-be authors:  I think it took her and her co-authors more than eight years and many mis-fires).

The film runs with a parallel story, a modern version taking place in New York City in 2002:  Amy Adams (who co-starred with Streep in the film Doubt, and played a delightful Amelia Earhart in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian) plays Julie Powell, a struggling low-level bureaucrat working with the lower Manhattan Development Corporation in the aftermath of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks.  She answers the phone from irate, depressed and unhappy people, readily admitting that she has no power whatsoever – in contrast to a number of her friends who all seem to be advancing in their careers, undertaking two hundred million dollar real estate deals.  She is married to Eric (Chris Messina) and – like Julia – is searching for meaning in her life.

She decides on a quixotic quest:  to cook all 524 recipes from Julia Child’s book over one year, and to write a blog about it.  The rest is the stuff of which American dreams are made:  Julie becomes wildly famous and is offered a book deal and her book is made … partly into this film.  So very American.  So very “you can be anything you wish to be” (even the President of the USA; look at Barack Obama for goodness sake).  And so very appealing.  And all, apparently, true.

Amy Adams acts beautifully in this role, which – interestingly – is not a totally sympathetic character.  She is narcissistic, driven and reasonably insensitive – more or less like people are in real life.  The Julia Child character – sometimes glimpsed on a black and white television screen – seems to come from another era, one that is simpler, calmer and more naive.  The contrast between these two characters works beautifully:  Ephron always works best when given two opposing stories to contrast where the characters hardly interact (think Sleepless in Seattle), and here she is in her finest element.

Julie and Julia is also, finally, a film about food, along with the best of them:  Babette’s Feast, Chocolat, Eat Man Drink Woman, Like Water for Chocolate.  So be warned:  eat before you go.

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