When I recently heard that writer/director Nora Ephron had passed away, the news saddened me. So many good romantic comedies in the 1980s and early 1990s carried Ephron’s trademark sparkle, and my husband and I frequently quote from our favorite Ephron screenplay When Harry Met Sally.
Eprhon’s witty dialogue and deft characterizations grace her final movie, Julie & Julia (2009) which she both wrote and directed. With Ephron’s recent passing on my mind, I wanted to finally see this film which I’d heard such good things about. How happy I was to find a movie that was charming and well-acted, but also filled with the radiance and joie de vivre that marks Ephron’s best work.
The movie is really almost two movies in one, and in some ways that’s another trademark of Ephron’s. Think of how many of her films show two people “apart” but either on track to come together or otherwise influencing one another’s lives. It’s a benchmark of When Harry Met Sally (at least in the movie’s beginning), Sleepless in Seattle, and You’ve Got Mail. Of course in all of those, the two people whose lives we’re seeing are potential romantic partners. Not the case here, which is one reason I think Julie & Julia feels more innovative and fresh than some recent Ephron films.
The “Julia” in the title is Julia Child, the world-famous cook whose 1961 book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” made a huge splash in the culinary world. Child, played here by Meryl Streep with her usual astounding adeptness, was a literally larger-than-life figure (she was over six feet tall) who became a cultural icon in her later years. The movie follows her and her husband Paul (the marvelous Stanley Tucci) in the late 1940s and early 1950s, focusing particularly on the years they spent in Paris where Paul worked for the American Embassy. It was during that time that Child learned to cook and began to collaborate with two French women on a cookbook that would teach the art of French cooking to Americans.
The “Julie” in the title is also based on a real person, the much lesser known Julie Powell, played with sprightly intelligence by Amy Adams. Powell was a young woman who spent one year in the early 2000s cooking her way through Julia Child’s cookbook. That might not sound like a big deal, but considering there were 524 recipes in Child’s cookbook (many of them quite complex) and there are only 365 days in the year, that’s a lot of cooking. That Julie managed it all in a tiny kitchen in a small apartment in Queens was another part of the feat, as was the fact that she managed all this with a mind-numbing 9-5 job. She also blogged her way through the experience, winning a number of fans – not to mention a book contract and ultimately this movie.
The film cuts back and forth between the stories of the two women, living in different places and different times, themselves so different and yet bonded by a love of cooking and by a need to find themselves through immersion in a worthwhile passion. The story does a good job of subtly highlighting some of their similarities. Besides the love of food/cooking and a need to discover something about themselves, each woman is married to a supportive, loving husband. Child had Paul, the love of her life (they found one another in mid-life, but both lived into their 90s) and Powell has Eric (Chris Messina) who encourages Julie even when she almost emotionally derails midway through her herculean year of cooking.
The two women never meet. Their stories only intertwine through Ephron’s screenwriting art and through Julie Powell’s immersion in Child’s story. While she cooks her way through Child’s recipes, she also reads biographies and watches re-runs of Child’s cooking show. Child becomes her mentor, so much so that she has a hard time not viewing the woman as a saint. Because we’re watching Powell’s story unfold at the same time, we can’t help but see Child’s story through a bit of a golden haze, though Streep and Tucci bring such delightful humanity (humor and pathos) to the characters that it helps us realize that Powell’s understanding of Child’s life, in retrospect, is only a thin slice of what that life actually was.
It’s all as complex and delicate as one of Julia Child’s own recipes, and you can’t help but feel that Ephron and everyone involved – the fine actors, the cinematographer, the folks who made all the delicious food that shows up in almost every scene, the costume designers and set decorators – all enjoyed making this movie dish. Joy particularly radiates in the Parisian scenes with Streep and Tucci, consummate actors who are just so very good at what they do. Streep has a way of falling into a part so deeply that you hardly notice the transformation. Tucci is quiet and understated and real: you completely believe how much he loves this towering, exuberant woman.
The contemporary portion of the film feels a little “small” by contrast – the emotions not nearly as big, the acting not nearly as grand. Yet Adams and Messina do a good job anchoring the slighter half of the plot, and they bring some humorous moments I loved – especially the scene where Julie is trying to get up her nerve to boil a lobster. (Humor-wise that moment was only topped for me by a sequence where Julia, first learning to cook, chops an entire mountain of onions. Paul comes home to find her weeping and the two play the scene brilliantly.) Adams has an elfin charm, though one thing I can’t quite understand is why every gamine-type actress in a Nora Ephron film ends up channeling Meg Ryan at least a little.
The film's ending doesn't feel entirely emotionally satisfying, but I think it's partly because Ephron resists the easy out. These two people never meet, and Child barely seems to know of Powell's existence. There's also a sense that the film wants to leave us with the feeling that we have only seen a very small portion of these lives, and that there's more to come for both -- we leave Child right as she finds out her ground-breaking book is being published, and we have no idea what Powell will do after her own ground-breaking year.
I really liked Julie & Julia. I liked it for what it said and what it didn’t have to say – about the importance of mentors and inspiration in our lives, about the challenge it can be for women to find their place in the world and find the confidence to try new skills. I loved the way the witty banter flew back and forth around so many dinner tables – yet another Ephron trademark. I feel pretty sure she didn’t know this would be her last film, and yet what a wonderful film with which to end a career. Julie & Julia feels full of the zest for living that pervades all of Ephron’s best work.
Also by Ephron: You’ve Got Mail; Bewitched
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