Julie & Julia (2009)
Written and Directed by Nora Ephron
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina
Run Time: 123 minutes
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
I remember watching Julia Child’s show “The French Chef” on television as a child. She had a big, masculine voice, an unabashed passion for food, and an awkward way of cooking that belied her culinary expertise. At the beginning of Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep re-enacts the famous scene captured on one of theoe TV episodes where Julia Child flips an omelet and barely gets it back in the pan. If the original elicited a few giggles, the re-enactment sent me into fits of laughter. Miss Streep puts that splattered omelet back into the pan with just the right combination of truth and exaggeration, without letting her performance splatter outside the lines into caricature. She doesn’t only recreate Julia Child; her recreation is even better than the orginal. Meryl Streep’s performance brings the great lady to vivid life in ways Julia Child could never have done. As Nora Ephron herself has said, commenting on Streep playing her in Heartburn: “She plays all of us better than we play ourselves, although it’s a little depressing knowing that if you went to audition to play yourself, you would lose out to her.” (Nora Ephron’s tribute to Meryl Streep on youtube)
Nora Ephron is another reason why this movie is such a treat. Her script is full of satirical wit (although mostly tenderly wrought), and there’s even some deep insight behind the obvious sentimental string pulling. Her respect and affection for the film’s two main characters, Julia and Julie Powell, the blogger who emulated her, gives the film a lot of lift. And as a renowned foodie herself, Nora Ephron doesn’t skimp on the scenes involving food, the source of so much pleasure for the two female characters in the film, and by extension for us. We see boeuf bourguignon simmering in its juices, Meryl-as-Julia practically having an orgasm from her first taste of sole meuniere, and Julie is never out of the kitchen, working her way through the goal she has set herself, to cook all 524 recipes from Julia’s classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 365 days, and to write about the experience in a daily blog.
But it is the story itself, a tale of two women’s search for fulfillment beyond romance or motherhood that made me hover about a foot off the ground as I left the theater. I couldn’t help myself. I had been uplifted by Nora Ephron’s powerful feminist message behind this mainstream movie, that women could and should strive to be known for something beyond the confines of love and marriage.
I use the word “confines” loosely, however, because what is also interesting about Julie and Julia is that both Julia Child and Julie Powell are happily married to adoring and supportive husbands. And they both appear to have healthy sex lives, although Julia’s own appetite seems even larger than average, maybe in keeping with her lust for life in general. That Nora Ephron chooses to emphasize the two women’s healthy relationships is telling—she wants to make sure we know that they are not finding substitutes for sex, or using artistic expression to ward off frustrations in other areas. The whole “she just needs to get laid” syndrome is put to rest.
And so what is left is a basic human need to self-actualize (pardon the Maslow), and when I see two women hell-bent on doing that, I can’t help but feel renewed. There are those who have criticized Ephron’s portrayal of Julia Child’s obviously more important and longer-lasting achievements in equal measure with Julie’s blogging year, but for me, that was why the movie worked so well. The desire to “do something” shouldn’t be graded; one woman’s psychic need is no more laudable than another’s. Julia Child was an ordinary woman with an extraordinary determination. Julie’s own determination may not amount to the eight years it took Julia Child to get her cookbook written and published, but it is just as steadfast in its own one-year duration. As someone who has been wanting to “do” something since I was a teenager, and who at fifty-one writes reviews for a website five people read, three of whom are family members, I choose not to scoff at Julie Powell’s own achievements. I know where she’s coming from, and I salute her.
Nora Ephron knows, too. It’s not easy for women, even women with adoring, caring husbands who pay the rent, and who don’t tell you to go get them their dinner. (Although there is something ironic about how both Julie and Julia followed their bliss by staying in the kitchen.) Nora Ephron is a writer who came of age in the male world of journalism, and it must not have been easy to compete with all that testosterone at Esquire magazine. Her career as a screenwriter and director shows a lot of backbone, and her films portray strong women with loads of determination. Julie & Julia is particularly mindful of women’s strength. It’s her best film yet.
There may be a lot of eating going on in Julie & Julia, but there’s an awful lot of drinking going on, too. Every time one of these women turns around, someone is handing her a martini, and wine with dinner is never out of the question. Julie & Julia may be a film with a heartfelt feminist message, but it’s also a film about people finding ways to enjoy life, in all its pleasures. In this era of constant scrutiny over what constitutes a healthy lifestyle, Julie & Julia is a welcome stick of butter.