Saturday, January 23, 2010

Julie & Julia

You can keep your Transformers and your District 9s and your Legions and all your movies wherein what hangs in the balances is nothing less than the fate of the planet or the universe or the multiverse or whatever. Robots, aliens, demons stand down -- I still say that for my money, the best drama comes from pitting a character against him- or herself.

So it is with Julie & Julia, the parallel story of Julie Powell and Julia Child. Julie's quest was to make all 524 recipes in Julia Child's iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia's quest was to write the sort of cookbook that would inspire someone like Julie to think it worthwhile to undertake such a task. The movie hops back and forth between Julie and Julia as they face similar struggles--while outside forces do sometimes stand in the way, the real tension in this movie is between reality and the characters' lofty ambitions.

Unfortunately, the filmmakers only trust that iconic man (or woman, or in this case women) vs. self (herselves) drama so much, and so two thirds of this movie ends up being fairly average. For example, about halfway through the movie, Julie's husband, Eric, leaves following a big fight about Julie's obsession with cooking. Maybe that really happened. Maybe it even happened in real life exactly as the movie portrayed it. But you knew, as soon as you had the vaguest inkling of the plot, that it was going to happen. And while it didn't have to be, it came off as cliché. It seemed to happen because a film requires something like that to happen in the second act--some sort of interpersonal, rather than intrapersonal, drama. It didn't happen, in other words, because it revealed any truth about the human condition. It just satisfies the filmmakers' conception (and the audiences') of what the shape of a movie is. It also sets up and justifies the catharsis of the third act.

That's fine. Doing these things isn't really a bad thing, per se. It's just something all movies do, and so it's average. And I may not even have noticed it if the first 30 minutes of the movie weren't so surprisingly spectacular.

As the movie opens, both Julie and Julia are discontented government workers looking for something to give meaning to their daily routine. Julia settles on taking a cooking class; Julie gives herself the aforementioned task of cooking (and blogging) her way through Julia Child's book.

And it's here--and not toward the end, as is typical--where the movie is revelatory. It beautifully captures the breathless dizzy joy that comes from taking a pastime and turning into an avocation. Julie & Julia is a fine enough story, but where it does its finest work is in understanding and recreating that odd alchemical reaction that results from taking something you do because it's kinda fun and turning it into a project that defines you. Both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams skillfully conjure the surprised nervous giddiness that results when you tell yourself that you're going to do something that you don't know that you can do.

Adams does a fine job in the movie, but she was always going to be outshined by Streep, who, not content with merely doing an impersonation of Julia Child, somehow also manages to harness her soul. She's not just doing Child's odd vocal register shifts and dogged straight-ahead delivery; she's also managed to help us re-see the ebullient liveliness and stubborn goodheartedness that helped make Julia Child into "Julia Child." She's completely hilarious because she's not trying at all to be funny.

In the end, Julie & Julia (which drags just a bit at a little over 2 hours long) is worth seeing for that rich intrapersonal struggle of the first 30 minutes and for Streep's embodiment of Child. The rest is pretty standard fare but, at the same time, you could do much worse with a movie. The first acts clocks in at a 17; the second and third acts hum along at a 4. Average it all together, and you're left with a comfortably competent 9.