Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Joy Of Meryl As Julia

Do yourselves a favor and see the movie BEFORE you read my review. Not that there are any real spoilers, but then I can go ahead and freely tell you all about it, without worrying that I'll be ruining it for you.

Plus you don’t need the sound of MY voice in your ear as you watch and listen to, with what I hope is great joy, the booming boisterous, JUBILANT performance that is Meryl Streep as Julia.

So thumbs up or thumbs down? Thumbs so far up that they could hit the sky, which, if they belonged to Julia, they probably would. I loved that her 6 foot 2 inch frame was an integral part of the story. She never fit in; she towered over everyone, except her equally tall sister, who also married a diminutive man. (It would have been hard not to.)

Meryl Streep's portrayal is SO effective that you really feel as if you’re watching snippets of Julia's life, of her beautiful and so touching (the Valentine’s Day party) relationship with Paul. Julia's visage and voice and body language are so well known that it's particularly amazing that Meryl Streep actually seems to embody the French Chef herself, including in several recreations of The French Chef program.

The other half of the movie isn’t quite as luminous. I admit that months ago I had predicted that I would be so enamored of the Julia part that Julie’s story would leave me cold. Funnily, though, what I wished for was MORE Julie parts or maybe BETTER Julie parts. She definitely got the short end of the stick.

A friend, who had read the book first, was disappointed that Julie's story was so sketchily told. The characterization of her marriage, in particular, was apparently very different. I JUST started the book, so it in no way affected my feeling about the movie. I was just happy that I was as interested in her story as I was.

Let’s start from the beginning. (I TOLD you to see the movie first.) Lights down, it’s starting. I’m so excited. From the first sound of her voice, we know it’s Julia. We see her thrill at eating her first French sole meunière.

The food itself all through the movie is impeccably shown. It’s fascinating to read about the styling, which you can do here. I loved learning how no lobsters were killed in the making of this movie. Reps from the American Humane Organization were on set to make sure the crustaceans’ rights were upheld. That wasn’t actually steam in the pot of water, it was a cool mist.

Julie is introduced to us as she and her husband (what IS his name?) move into a really crappy (but bigger for them) apartment. That’s juxtaposed with Julia moving into her first Parisian apartment with Paul. It’s time worn in a Parisian way, but so charming and beautifully appointed (except for the higgeldy piggeldy kitchen). When Julia first sees the Parisian apartment she exclaims, “It’s Versailles.”

Julie’s reaction to her new apartment is somewhat more muted as she collapses on the floor of the way too small kitchen. Julie AND her apartment seem beaten down. Julia and her abode are full of life and energy.

To make us understand Julia’s height even more, we see her draped on her bed, legs coming off the end. We see drab Julie at her drab cubicle.

Then Julie says the sentence that’s getting a lot of play: “I love that after a day where nothing is sure — and when I say nothing, I mean nothing — you can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. It’s such a comfort.” I guess that’s supposed to be the genesis of her blog and year long project, even though, the actual beginning comes a bit later, but it sounds a bit stilted to me.

There is a very funny scene with Julie when she joins 3 friends for a “Cobb salad lunch”. Each one orders a Cobb salad with a special request - a Cobb salad without the bacon…without the cheese…and for Julie, without the eggs.

(It reminded me of the great brunch scene in LA Story, where Steve Martin and cast order coffee, with all manner of variations – twists, double and half cafs and goodness know what else.)

Julie’s friends are on a much higher economic plain than she is and they’re really painful about it. She finds out that one of them is writing a blog and, worse than that, that it’s actually entertaining.

She says, “I can write a blog.” Okay, I’m liking her more, but they make it such a throw away moment that it’s kind of annoying. She comes up with the Mastering tie-in, but we don’t really understand WHY she decided to blog in the first place. We see Julie and husband watching The French Chef on television with Julia (Meryl) flipping an omelet (badly) while Julie gabs on, “And she wears pearls!” The scene feels really fake to me.

Plus Julie’s (Amy’s) pronunciation of Bœuf is really annoying and continues throughout the movie. She keeps saying BOOF. It becomes such an integral part of the story, this Bœuf Bourguignon, that she should be pronouncing it correctly!

Back to Julia, the French love Julia’s enthusiasm. She charms all the hard-bitten vendeurs in the Parisian markets. There’s a scene with Paul and she lets out a sigh, such a huge JULIA sigh, before trying to decide what to do with her life. Hat Making? No, she really likes to EAT and she and Paul agree that she’s so good at it. She does try the hat making. (DID she really?) Then she goes to Shakespeare and Co. and tries to find a French cookbook IN English. None to be found.

Paul gives Julia a Larousse Gastronomique. Oh, I remember when I first got mine. I used to read it like a novel.

Butter becomes important to both of Julie and Julia. Julie makes a dish with chicken, cream and mushrooms and she’s delighted to learn the secret of not crowding the pan. Now THAT sounds real to me, because I remember the revelation of Michael Chiarello reminding me that mushrooms should be left alone to cook AND not to add salt which draws out the moisture and makes them soggy.

Julie, apparently, had never eaten an egg on it own before. That’s another problem. Unfortunately, we have no real sense of how much or how well Julie cooked BEFORE starting her project. I would have liked more background. WHO is this Julie Powell and WHY did she start writing a blog in the first place?

In the movie, and I’m told in the book in as well, it comes off as a light bulb moment (suggested by her nameless husband). I get that she needed a project, something to do outside of her depressing nine to five temp job, but cooking? And from Mastering? Why? The book holds more answers about this supposedly...something about memories of her mother cooking from it.

Back to Paris and Julia has started at the Cordon Bleu. Her onion chopping technique leaves something to be desired, according to her master chef teacher. The next scene is of her at home chopping a MOUNTAIN of onions for practice and Paul walking into the room, crying instantly.

Her onion chopping technique is a bit of a puzzle. We see Julia being instructed to hold the knife above the cutting board and drop it down in short staccato strokes, rather than planting the end of the knife on the cutting board and doing all the work by lifting the handle up and down. Curious. I thought it was the only false note in the Julia sequences.

Oh, there was one other thing. Especially short extras were cast and furniture was made smaller to indicate Julia’s height, which came off as very realistic 99% of the time. But the table and work area in her Parisian apartment kitchen could NOT have come up barely past her knees, could it?

We see Julia chopping, making omelets…she’s VERY competitive with her male classmates. She absolutely LOVES it. The Childs have a charming Valentine’s party and Paul toasts her, “You are the butter to my bread; the breathe to my life.”

Meanwhile both husbands find the need of digestive aids. A bottle of Tums is by the side of Julie’s husband’s bed.

Julia meets her future co-authors in the bathroom at an embassy party. Julia mentions that the truculent head of the Cordon Bleu doesn’t like her very much and is resisting administering her final test. They encourage her to insist on taking it and suggest she mention the American Ambassador’s name. (She does and, after retaking it, she earns her diploma.) Julia begins teaching cooking to Americans with Simca Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with Julia and Simca doing the lion’s share of the work.

Next we see of Julie, she’s trying to master aspic. It flops out all over the dish as she tries to unmold it, clogging up the sink. She gets a call that someone important is coming to dinner. While we chew on that, we see some of the most light-hearted, charming and hilarious scenes of the movie with the visit of Julia’s sister (the irrepressible Jane Lynch) to Paris. When the two sisters swoop down the train platform to greet each other and share many common vocalisms, it’s nothing short of uproarious. Julia and Paul have even managed to find a tall, very tall, man for her.

The singularly funniest moment in the movie is just before the party they’re throwing for Julia’s sister. Julia and Dorothy are in similar party-quality shirtwaists. They stand next to each other, looking straight into the camera (to THEM it’s a mirror). Julia says, “We look GOOD!” She waits a full moment before saying, “Not GREAT, but good.” (Or words to that effect.) The entire audience erupted in laughter.

Oh, Julia! So lacking in vanity, so truthful, so charming, so REAL. The sister ends up marrying a short, very short, guy and living happily after. There is a sad moment, when Julia learns her sister is having a baby, and she’s happy and sad at the same time. She never dramatizes or dotes on disappointments. She just gets on with it.

Julia has lunch with Simca and Louisette and tells them about her revelation of making mayonnaise in a WARM bowl. She’s surprised they’re not more interested. They are, Simone Beck assures her, but they have their own worries. The cookbook that the two of them have been working on has been rejected by the publisher and they want Julia’s help with revising it. She agrees.

Next scene is Julie and hubby watching Dan Ackroyd do his Julia-cuts-her-finger-and-bleeds-all-over-the-chicken bit.

Julia begins writing her book in Paris. She and Simca go to Louisette’s apartment to meet Irma Rombauer. It’s so interesting what they learn. Irma had to pay $3000 to have her book published the first time. (The money came from the insurance after her husband killed himself. Who knew?!!) The next publisher basically cheated her and the biggest revelation of all comes next – that there were SO many recipes, she couldn’t possibly test them all. I feel fairly certain that that is not true of later editions and, even if it is, I’ve never had a Joy Of Cooking recipe that’s failed.

We learn after all this time that Julia’s editor, Judith Jones, is the V.I.P. who is coming to dinner at Julie’s. She prepares Julia’s Boof Bourguignon with great care and stays up to take it out of the oven at the right time. She’s so exhausted that she falls asleep and Sacre Bleu! Zee stew…eet is ruined! She takes a sick day, which, for some reason, is made a really big deal of.

Julie makes another, equally precise, Bourguignon, only to learn shortly before dinner that Judith Jones is not coming. The rain is too much for her to come out in, all the way to Long Island City, which is where they live. Why that had eluded me, until that moment, I don’t know. I knew it was a subway ride, but I didn’t realize it was there.

Her hubby takes the news fine and says more for us. THEN he adds salt to the stew, which really gets Julie mad and concerned that she was about to serve a bland stew to Judith Jones.

Her husband accuses her of being the center the universe and next comes a part that no blogger wants to hear from her husband. He tells her that her blogging is all about ME, ME, ME (Well, after all, who else can write so authoritatively on the subject?!!) He comes up with plenty of synonyms for self-involved, selfish, egotistical etc. I felt my most sympathetic to Julie at that point, which probably says more about me than her.

Anyway, back to Julia moving around Europe, typing up her book with carbon paper and communicating with Simca and less so, MUCH less so, with Louisette.

Julie reaches her breaking point and she complains to her (sainted, supposedly) husband that everything is wrong. He is appalled by her self-centeredness and walks out. Julie says she wishes she were more like Julia. She gives up blogging for a bit (a day? a week? no clue.)

Next scene is in a bar, where Julie’s bemoaning her fate to her friend. There isn’t much time to develop the other characters, who aren’t given much face time. This funny, upfront best friend acknowledges that, YES, Julie is a bitch. Julie wants to be more like Julia, she repeats.

This brings up one huge difference between Julia and Julie, at least in the movie version of their lives. Julia’s discovery of her love of food led to adventures and joy and action. She was always DOING something. We don’t get that same joyful activity from Julie. She’s tormented or complaining or focused inward. Julia NEVER took her eye off the ball of a successful marriage either. She was as devoted to Paul as to a perfect Hollandaise. Perhaps, even more so.

Julie’s husband comes back and so does the blogging. The marriage and the cooking are back on track.

Julia and Simca travel to Boston to meet Avis, an editor friend, who is shepherding them through the process of finding a publisher. It turns out she and Julia had never actually met, although they’d been corresponding for 8 years. This is what they write about Avis in the acknowledgements of Mastering: “Finally, here is Avis DeVoto, our foster mother, wet nurse, guide and mentor. She provided encouragement for our first steps, some ten years ago, as we came tottering out of the kitchen with the gleam of authorship lighting out innocent faces.“

So sweet. Julie’s friendships in the movie are much less nurturing. I’m hoping the book includes more of them.

The next big event in Julie’s life is having Amanda Hesser to dinner. If I were AH, I would be really po’ed at how I was portrayed as a kind of starving, pinch-faced, humorless reporter. Her story, none the less, opens the door to all the many offers and riches that come Julie’s way as a result of the article and her blog.

Paul tells Julia her book is going to change the world. Interesting. Julie’s book changed HER life...and her husband’s, I presume. The world? Well, it’s a different world now and we already had one Julia.

We see a young Judith Jones first get the book proposed to her. She cooks the Bœuf Bourguignon (no problem with pronunciation) from the pages of the manuscript. It’s a revelation. She meets with Julia and comes up with the title that did change the world.

Julie in the afterglow of the NY Times article, gets a call from a reporter telling her that Julia HATED her blog. Julie is crushed. “Julia taught me to cook.” Her husband (what IS his name?) convinces her that what’s important is what she’s learned from Julia and what that gave her, not what Julia thinks of her.

Julie buys it, which seems strange to me. She seems highly intelligent and not susceptible to BS. If that were me and I found out that the person that I worshipped and practically got into bankruptcy over absolutely hated me, I think I would be destroyed. I didn’t find that part of the movie or the story particularly convincing.

At the final dinner at the end of the year, Julie toasts to her husband as, “The breath to my life.” Actually, I can’t honestly remember if she’s raising her glass to her husband (name, please?) or Julia.

She and Eric (oh there you go, that’s WHO he is!) visit Julia’s kitchen on display at the Smithsonian, and Julie leaves a hunk of butter as a tribute under her portrait. (It’s a thoughtful accolade, but kind of unsanitary.) Then we see the kitchen, the real kitchen of Julia, in action as Julia unwraps a copy of her first book.

What a wonderful story, what a wonderful movie and what a wonderful performance! I look forward to getting more of Julie’s story from her book. As for Julia…Every time, Meryl took to the screen with her resounding ah’s and oh’s and heavy breathing, I (and the entire audience) couldn’t help but laugh as she took over each scene, not just with her stature, but with her joie de vivre.

Of course Julia loved food, good food, but that was just a vehicle for her sunny, optimistic and oh so American point of view. It is so interesting that this All-American temperament produced such a Francophile. I don’t know of any other society on earth that could have produced such a boundless bundle of forward-looking, forward-thinking energy.


Anonymous said...

I just read your review and I think you are right - they just never developed the Julie part enough. I also realized later, the contrast between the way Julia and Paul savored food and life and the way Julie and whats his name demolished food and not developing their story made me wonder was this a statement on the lack of respect for Julia and living life well and our society as it is now. Perhaps this is reading way toooooo much into the movie but you cannot but be struck by the differences.

Sheila said...

I saw the movie on Saturday with my husband. I loved it! He just kinda liked it.

I'm anxious to read the book - as it usually goes that the book is better than the movie. I also thought M. Streep was so amazing. And I completely agree that Julie's character wasn't explained or developed enough. But I still loved it and will see it again!

So, how are you supposed to say boof?

Shays Rebel said...

Yeah, how DO you say boof? Here’s a Frenchman at an online dictionary and it sounds like he’s saying “buff.” I guess that’s why they talk like they do, all those stuck together letters.

Here’s a rully cute YouTube of some of Jacques Pepin’s and Julia’s memorable moments in the kitchen, if you like this sort of thing. On one clip he’s cooking spinach, I think, and she tells him three times that it isn’t very tender, is it? and he gets tickled, and then she adds that it’s also bitter. They have a tiny spat about making roux. I thought it was funny.

DebCarol said...

I did read the book, Julie & Julia, when it was first out. And have read several books on Julia Child - the best one being; "My Life in France", which she wrote with Alex Prud'Homme. BUT I did not read your review (except to the part where you told me not to if I hadn't seen the movie!). So hopefully I'll get a chance to see it soon and will pop back in and comment on your review! Can't wait!

Stacey said...

I agree with your review on most everything. I also had a hard time remembering Julie's hubby's name. But I did feel bad for him during the fight where he left.

Sue said...

What a thoughtful comment. That's so true that Julia seemed to ENJOY everything and Julie was just harassed and kind of negative. Do you think Nora Ephron intentionally was making a judgement on that when she clearly favored the Julia side of the story?

Hi Sheila,
It WAS so good. In this case, it sounds like the movie only used the book as a starting point. I definitely could see it over and over.

Now, I'm no Jacques Pepin, but BŒUF is pronounced more like the beginning of the word BEURRE, than rhyming with POOF. Listen to the 4th word in this string of French words:

Hi SR,
More like Beuff.

I remember a lot of Julia's and Jacques's shows. Thanks for the link. They ARE so sweet together. They shared a classic culinary education and respect for certain time-honored techniques, but when they disagreed, it was too funny.

Oh, DC,
I LOVE that you're so obedient.I still haven't read any other reviews of the movie. I didn't want any other opinions influencing me, even subconsciously.

I really want to know what you think after you've seen it, particularly since you read the book first. I'm just rereading My Life in France as well as Julie's book and nothing is better than Julia's story of her life in Paris.

I love being agreed with. I thought the husband's character was a lot more sympathetic than Julie's, although one friend of mine was absolutely disgusted by the way he crammed food into his mouth and chewed really grossly. For some reason that didn't bother me. I thought that bruschetta looked amazing and I don't know why I wasn't repulsed when he stuffed that cake into his mouth, but I wasn't!

Yvo said...

My boyfriend was absolutely disgusted with Eric's eating habits. It was kind of disgusting, he was like attacking the food, and my boyfriend - who isn't really judgmental or picky or anything - blurted out oh my god, what are you, a neanderthal? geez!
I did wish they'd developed Julie more because they made her feel very flat and one dimensional. It was unfortunate. And I have an idea that they didn't show the truth about how Julie felt after she found out Julia thought her blog was self-serving and stupid because it was too real for them to put in a movie. I mean, if someone has the reaction you describe yourself as having... how do you come back from that in a movie?

Anonymous said...

our local PBS station has gone into its archives and dug out the Julia and Jacques series for Saturday mornings.


but unfortunate for the FN show running at the same time:

5 ingredient fix.

not even a close comparison!