One of these people is not like the other

Julie & JuliaJulie & Julia
Nora Ephron, USA 2009
Viewed on 35mm, Aug. 16

I feel like I need to address Julie & Julia in reverse, so, let’s take Julia first.

The film is composed of two narratives, and one of them concerns the development of Julia Child’s surprising career as an advocate for French cooking in the US. I’d read that this was the best part, but I really didn’t expect it to be so strong. Julia Child, as she’s shown here, is a really fascinating personality, hilarious to listen to (not always intentionally, I think), but also warm-hearted, fully-realized, determined, and, well, spunky. And somehow, Meryl Streep manages to pull all that off almost flawlessly. To be honest, I’ve never been much of a believer in the cult of Streep; rather, I’ve just grudgingly acknowledged her talent. This movie changed that, and I appreciate it just for that.

And then we have Julie, more specifically Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a young bureaucratic phone-answerer who decides to blog her way through Child’s entire cookbook.  Julie seems nice enough, but there’s nothing really about her that makes her worth watching for an entire hour! It’s not as if, were I continue to blog about Firefly, I would think that it would be a good idea to one day make a Joss Whedon autobiographical film in which I was given equal prominence with Whedon himself! Yet that’s what’s happened here; a Julia Child fangirl is inexplicably places on the same level with Child herself, and at no point is Nora Ephron able to convince us that this is a good idea.

If Julie just bored me at the beginning, she started to make me resent her by the time the film was over. To be fair, Julie is presented as a realistically-flawed individual, but despite some seemingly fatal details that threaten to undercut her project, everything about how she is portrayed is meant to convince us that, overall, her endeavor is a heroic and utterly worthwhile. There’s no question that Julie is inordinately less compelling than Julia Child, and that her journey is much more trivial than hers as well.

I do want to note that no blame should go to Amy Adams for this; she’s a great actor who does the best that she can with a hopeless character. My friend remarked that Ephron seemed to be wishing she could have the young Meg Ryan back, but I doubt that that would have made all that much difference, had it been possible.

The sad part is that the film was not unsalvageable; had Julie’s part of the proceedings been cut to, say, a quarter of the film or less, her story could have been a solid framing narrative for the meatier course of Child’s experiences. I understand why Julie Powell was able to convince herself that she was worth reading (she got a book deal, after all), but I don’t know what convinced Ephron, or the studio, to see it that way. As it is, I’ve never before seen a film that married such a strong narrative to such a weak one.

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6 thoughts on “One of these people is not like the other

  1. Hi Carl,

    Once again a pretty thorough investigation of this film. Being the friend in question who believe Ephron envisioned Meg Ryan for Amy Adams’s part in this film, let me elaborate a little. Basically, you’re totally right about Julie: she’s a snarky blogger who is sarcastic, opinionated, and writing about her meltdowns and breakdowns as much as she is writing about cooking. However, many “unlikeable” characters make for excellent big screen stardom: Snape (Harry Potter), Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm), among a long list of “people we love to hate.” I think the film is wayward in not capturing whatever it was that made Julie’s blog one of Salon.com’s most read blogs. Having just visited it now, I still don’t see the charm, but it could have been possible to shape a narrative about the David, the little guy/underdog, that fights against the odds and gets her book published. Ephron lost her magic touch with the light romantic and sentimental when it came to Julie. That’s why I felt a little Meg Ryan nose wrinkle and charming grin would have softened some of the dinginess of Julie’s narrative. However, this too leads to another line of questioning on my part. Are we off-put by Julie’s story moreso because we fancy ourselves bloggers, and not nearly as successful? Is this smashing all of our (I include myself in this) narcissistic investments in our own Internet opuses? Also, I began to wonder if in these hard economic times we don’t want to go along with Julie in her dingy Queens apartment with the peeling paint, and industrial garage shelf bookcases? Perhaps our resistances are stirred by such a gritty portrayal of a life, a little too much like our actual lives? I haven’t riddled this all out yet, but I think there was a problem with the vision of the film and its execution, and not just the fact that Julie is not “likable.” Ephron seems to have made Amy Adams the “foil” that highlights the glamor of Streep as an actress and as Julia Child, away in enchanting France and historically removed by half a century. Just some thoughts.

    1. Good thoughts, all of them! (That sounds weird). Thanks for checking out the blog; I’m amused that it’s not that successful, even for you, presumably a more sympathetic or receptive reader than I would have been (I’m sure that I do have some inherent masculinist prejudices against such endeavors, as much as I might try to deny it.

      It really makes you wonder how she got the book deal in the first place, much less how she because a bestseller, but I guess the publishing industry is pretty gimmick-oriented nowadays, not to mention hostile to fiction.

      But I guess I do think the comparison with Larry David is pretty obvious. David is fully willing to present himself as the antihero, both self-righteous and inherently awful, whereas Julie Powell, who seemingly got too much creative control in this project (she even got a screenplay credit, along with Ephron!) wants to present herself as flawed but overall a wortwhile, even exceptoinal, perosnality.

      I think this kind of very narrow focus of action cries out for a critical, perhaps more “artistic” approach; I’m thinking also of how Charlie Kaufman presented himself in Adaptation. This kind of approach would possibly enable a fuller consideration of the types of questions you raised. I think the impulse for mainstream success is just not compatible with such a narrow scope (for the Powell half, anyway). Meanwhile, the Child half is one of the best mainstream biopics I’ve ever seen! Frustrating.

      1. In fact, I really want to underscore my remark that Powell wants to be seen as exceptional. When she encounters her petty, hateful “friends” (and you gotta love how female friendship is celebrated in Child’s story, but portrayed as impossible in Powell’s) at that lunch, she (as a screenwriter) is not trying to tell us, why do these women think they are so important? Rather, she’s shouting out, “why don’t they realize that it’s ME who is the important one?!” Powell in many ways is the everywoman, and you ask why we aren’t able to just go along with that, but I think it’s because she utterly refuses to truly see herself that way. She continues to insist that she is special but never shows us anything to confirm that impression, and worse, continually compares herself to an infinitely more remarkable woman. She’s just too entitled (on a class and race basis primarily, which leads to that classic entitled artist attitude as well).

  2. But Carl, Julia Child was just as, if not more entitled in terms of class and race than Julie, no? So how do you explain Julia’s story in terms of privilege? If anything in terms of politics and wishful thinking, Julia Child’s story is working harder to make us feel comfortable about politics and economics b/c everything is historically AND geographically distant. What I was trying to note was that both stories, in their rough outlines, do for the most part parallel each other: they’re about passion, writing, failures, coping with a society that resigns women to secretaries, and using food as a gateway to passion or rekindled passion (in Julie’s story). However much they might be similar in their rough outlines they lead us to feel invested in Julia’s story on the one hand, and irritated and bored, on the other, in Julie’s story. I think this has to do with not making Julie’s story irritating enough, or redemptive enough, or giving Amy Adam’s a role that highlights her somewhat campy (Enchanted, hello?!) onscreen persona.

    1. You’re right, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that the “privilege” label could be stamped on either story, but at least we get to see Child triumph over sexism to some degree. It’s perhaps realistic but no less frustrating to see that Powell really doesn’t even consider anything of the sort.

      Like you say, Powell should’ve been more positive or negative (maybe if she had realized that her blog was a bad idea… except she did get paid, so obviously her undertaking has been ratified in the only way this society considers meaningful), but I really think she should have just been reduced to 25% of the film’s running time at most. We could have a nice 90 minute piece with at least 60 miles of Child and 30 minutes or less (I would vote for 15 perhaps) of Powell. Instead, Powell’s ego was given free reign for some reason.

  3. LOL! I love you Carl. Basically, your solution is the following: cut out the shit–the shit that I DON’T LIKE! You have a little Zizekian streak in you after all. _Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?_ Hmmmn.

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