Sunday, August 9, 2009

Wherein I add my voice to the general chorus.

When I read Julie & Julia in 2005, I was underwhelmed by Julie Powell's story. As a food geek (not yet blogger), I was of course struck dumb with jealousy at her success and her chance to appear in the New York Times food section (Nerd alert: Amanda Hesser cameos as herself.). But Powell's book (I did not follow her blog) seemed to me to be a story of struggle against many things in which I myself find pleasure: the unique challenges presented by living in New York, the act of writing, and the small and large tasks involved in cooking a meal.

Don't get me wrong - I thought Amy Adams did a fantastic job bringing Julie Powell to the screen. A lot of people have made much of the fact that Julie is not "likable." Well, she's not. But she is someone to whom many of us can relate. Stuck in a soul-sucking job that makes her feel useless, watching her college friends ascend to great career heights around her, she is feeling that all-too-typical I'm-turning-30-and-don't-feel-like-I-have-anything-sufficient-to-show-for-it malaise. (I know a little something about this.)

In this, she's not so different from Julia Child, who found herself feeling useless and out of place in mid-century Paris. Nora Ephron, whose recent films have struck me as a bit insipid (in contrast to the near-perfection of her screenplay for When Harry Met Sally), does an incredible job of syncing up the stories of these two women, both rhythmically and thematically.

Ephron makes it easy to draw parallels between their lives; for example, all the cooks in the story (including Julia's editor, Judith Jones) are united by the remarkable perfume released when they deglaze a boeuf bourgignon with the titular bottle of burgundy. Sadly, though, Julie's ultimately self-serving goals and view of the kitchen as a battlefield pale in comparison to Julia's goal of bringing French food to Americans and her view of the kitchen as a place of excitement and discovery.

As many reviewers have noted, Julia's Paris (and, briefly, her Germany, Norway and Cambridge) is full of joy, where Julie's New York seems like a place of relentless hardship - to the point where I wanted to scream, "If you hate riding the subway, move to the suburbs!" Both women, though, are blessed with wonderfully supportive husbands and have marriages that are truly partnerships - something that is all too rare in our entertainment, but a phenomenon I see around me daily.

Ephron brought these two relationships to life, and the pitch-perfect portrayals of Simca Beck, Louisette Bertholle, Dorothy McWilliams and Irma Rombauer were similarly spectacular. (All of these folks are described vividly in Julia's memoir My Life In France, on which her half of the movie is based, and which I highly recommend you read as soon as humanly possible.)

But while Meryl Streep's Julia (like the real-life version) is a magnetic whirl of charm and wit (She pulls a cannelloni out of boiling water and declares it to be "as hot as a stiff cock!"), Amy Adams' Julie is not only lost, but seems to face her life with a combination of resignation and selfish, dejected entitlement.

It's fairly well-known that Julia didn't have a terribly high opinion of Julie. Some believe it's because Julia thought Julie was taking advantage of her masterpiece, or trying to grab at little bits of her limelight. I disagree.

I think that Julia's dislike for the Julie/Julia Project arose from Julie's view of cooking as a summit to be reached, come hell or high water, as opposed to an act to be undertaken with pleasure and excitement. Throughout the movie, Julie talks about "having to" cook. "I have to bone a duck," or, "I have to kill a lobster." To me, and, I suspect, to Julia, these are things I get to try, not things I have to plod through. Julie sees cooking as a means to an end, not as a joyful end in and of itself.

Ultimately, though, both women face rejection, and both decide that they must power past it if they are to achieve their goals. This, for me, was where Ephron's true-to-life portrayal of Julie as irritating paid off.

No matter who you are, to get what you want you have to be willing to declare, as Paul Child does, "Fuck them." Screw the haters, screw the doubters: believe in yourself, and the rest will follow. This, as much as how to make a perfect beurre blanc, is what Julia has taught me, and I'm glad Ephron saw it, too.


Jen said...

You've made me want to see this movie more so than I did before. I will as soon as I get back to NY!

Nora said...

I waited to read this post until I saw the movie, and I think you've really nailed some of the films triumphs and flaws. I do think that some of the folks who want to toss away the Julie parts are simply too far removed from feeling lost in early adulthood to latch on to that aspect of Julie's story.

But your observation about Julie approaching cooking more as a chore -- spot on. I hadn't thought about that but it's the philosophical issue that separates the two Js.

wasabi prime said...

I agree; I think it's too simple to say it's only about the love of food. It's more about a love of life and taking control of it, to lead it somewhere in a more desirable direction. I thought it was a nice story about relationships as well. We can accomplish amazing things and be the masters of our fate, but it's a lonely road if you don't have someone to share it with. I saw the movie with my best friend who gave me the book years ago, and that made the movie very special for us.

Meg Blocker said...

@nora: Thanks so much! I agree with you - people have been too quick to dismiss the Julie story, but I do get where they're coming from: you miss Julia's joy every second she's offscreen.

@wasabi prime: Well said! Julia & Paul remind me of why I'll never settle for the wrong partner. BTW, Happy Statehood Day! Love your blog!

Under-Employed Girl said...

I loved seeing this movie with you and hearing and now reading your insights as well as munching your great cookies.

I really like your blog and your writing so much! It was wonderful to meet you, I hope to see you again soon.

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