Will a blogger you’ve never heard of manage to make boeuf bourguignon? Come to Julie & Julia for the answer.
Julie & Julia, an unbearably cute movie from Nora Ephron, hangs all of its laughs and most of its tears on absurdly small obstacles, aiming at an audience for whom the idea of taking a year to cook every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking — why, that’s almost one and a half food items a day! — seems a really interesting and daunting challenge.
Julie Powell (played by redhead Amy Adams, who stuffs her performance with Meg Ryan perkiness) is a bored worker whose job is to field complaints about Ground Zero for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. It’s typical of this movie that the charred underbelly of New York City receives barely a glance. The charred beef, though, is meant to make us cluck in despair, and Julie’s day job is mere quirk meant to show how weird office life is.
Since she announces on a blog on Salon.com that she is out to test every recipe in the French cuisine bible — again, these recipes were specifically designed to be easy, so count this as one of the less impossible dreams you’ve ever heard of — the movie shuttles back and forth between Julie’s mini-quest and the story of how Julia Child (Meryl Streep), that equine epicure, turned herself from a bored wife of a diplomat (Stanley Tucci) posted to Paris into first a trained French chef and then a celebrated cookbook writer in the 1950s.
Child, whom Streep overplays with many a flouncing gesture and a ridiculous (but accurate) dog-whistle voice, was a linebacker-sized American whose zany cheer made her a cult star when she hosted a PBS cooking show in the 1970s.
Among the phony conflicts Julie faces: Her husband gets angry with her because she keeps calling him a saint on her blog. She freaks out when it’s time to boil a lobster (she doesn’t object to eating dead animals; it’s just being the one to dump the critters in the pot that gives her moral qualms). She falls asleep when she’s supposed to take her boeuf bourginon out of the oven. Then she skips work the next day to fix the problem. Her boss finds out (since she blogs all the details) and says: “Anyone else would fire you. A Republican would fire you!”
Any notion that the golden nimbus of Obamatime would stop Hollywood from dropping such bizarrely random political cheap shots into movies should be dropped, for Julie & Julia turns out to be — you guessed it — obsessed with the idea that Republicans are coming to stop all the fun.
Julia Child, you see, was hounded by Joe McCarthy, or so the movie would like you to believe. It’s the 1950s when she starts work on her epic cookbook, and her husband is a diplomat, so … he was apparently called in for a few questions one day. Viewers might be forgiven for wondering where the horrible part is when a guy is given an all-expenses-paid transatlantic voyage to Washington in exchange for sitting through an interview. Several scenes are interrupted by anti-McCarthy chatter, though if he ruined the lives of batty American chefs in Paris, this is surely the first movie to so argue.
Why the intrusion? Because Ephron’s romantic-comedy recipe doesn’t include the kinds of interesting conflicts that couples actually face. She’s only interested in cute. Conservatives, in Ephron’s world, are like the monsters in a children’s book — easy targets, like the snobby French matron who tells Child Americans can’t cook. (She responds with a raspberry.) Why does the sequoia-proportioned Julia Child come across as a sex kitten (there’s even — brace yourself — a bubble bath scene) in this movie? Because it’s cute.
A recent New Yorker profile of Ephron underscored the point that, though Ephron’s disastrous marriage to Carl Bernstein led to the book and movie Heartburn, now her husband characters are blandly supportive nice guys, just as her heroines are adorably plucky underdogs. There’s a scene in Julie & Julia in which the movie implies (but doesn’t mention) that Child couldn’t have children and was miserable about it. She cries for ten seconds, and no reference is made to the matter again. Onward with scenes like the one in which Child, determined to prove she can slice an onion, slices a pile of them the size of Mount Blanc. Cute!