A Writer’s Review of Julie & Julia
Release Date: August 7, 2009
Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, and Chris Messina.
Written by Nora Ephron: Based on a work(s) by Julie Powell, Julia Child, and Alex Prud’homme.
(Spoiler Level: Low.)
Greeting, hacks and scribblers. At long last (and with no valid reason to procrastinate further) here’s the first in what promises to be a very long-running series of my reviews on movies about writers. Before we dive in, perhaps you would like to take a peek at the Introduction to this series by clicking HERE. If you’ve already read the intro feel free to hang here with me while the newcomers travel back in time to see what this is all about. And while we wait we’ll sip some tea and talk about other things. That’s a lovely sweater jacket—J.C. Penney?
Ah, I see everyone is now back and more or less accounted for (although it’s safe to say there’s little or no accounting for some of you).
Reviewing movies about writers. The idea was prompted, sort of, by Julie & Julia, the film version of what happened when Julie Powell decided to document her attempt to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child in one year. She damn well does it and the blog went viral. Nora Ephron (screenwriter and director) clearly knew a good stew when she smelled it.
The Whiz-Bang Synopsis:
A culinary legend provides a frustrated office worker with a new recipe for life in Julie & Julia, the true stories of how Julia Child’s (Meryl Streep) life and cookbook inspired fledgling writer Julie Powell (Amy Adams) to whip up 524 recipes in 365 days and introduce a new generation to the magic of French cooking. Stanley Tucci co-stars in director Nora Ephron’s delicious comedy about joy, obsession and butter. Bon appétit!
My Take on Things (or why this movie made the cut):
Julie & Julia practically screamed to be the first entry in SoC (“Scribblers on Celluloid,” duh). The primary audience for Mott’s Ruminations (all three of you) is likely made up of fictioneers; scribblers and hacks who would not read a memoir if their lives depended on it. But in the end, J & J may well turn out to be the movie with more to say about writing than any of the gazillion flicks to follow.
The movie is based on two books, Child’s My Life in France, and Powell’s blog-turned-book Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. There is of course another book that may be considered the third star of the movie: Julia Child’s first book, the essential cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. So we have a film based not on one book, but three. That of course does not supply the requisite ingredients for a SoC entry. But the movie chronicles the actual writing of two of the three books. (My Life in France came later and is the basis for what we actually see Julia Child doing in the film, part of which is the writing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.)
It would be easy to simply say that I friggin’ loved this movie. Because I did. There is much to love here and little to disdain (even for the most jaded critic). Even the notoriously tough critics at Rotten Tomatoes averaged this film at 70% positive, labeling the movie as “Certified Fresh.”
It’s been said often but I’ll go ahead and say it again: Meryl Streep is brilliant. She can do anything. Period. I won’t belabor this, but any film she stars in almost demands two viewings: one to sit in awe of how completely she owns whatever character she is playing; a second to actually follow the story line once you’ve stopped shaking your head at how the hottie who sang and danced in Mamma Mia!, then played Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, could so mesmerize us as the embodiment of the galumphing, high-spirited Julia Child. Just…wow, okay?
Stanley Tucci as husband Paul Child is as charming as charming gets. The chemistry between Tucci and Streep makes the onscreen couple a pure delight to watch. We want to be them. We want a Julia, we want a Paul, we want what they have.
And Amy Adams? This generation’s Meg Ryan, plain and simple. I love her. She’s on my list (if you’re a fan of the show Friends you know all about The List). Nuff said.
The movie jumps artfully back and forth through time, showing us Julia Child’s search for “something to do” in 1950s Paris through her neophytic attempts at cooking, then hopping forward to the early 2000s where Julie Powell is also in search of something to do that will define her in a way her call center job does not. And whether it’s Child’s Paris or Powell’s Queens, we want to be there. Nora Ephron knows her stuff and knows how to enchant the viewer with even the most common of locales (I could so live in Powell’s dingy and cramped apartment). Add to this a rare lighthearted and lilting score by Alexandre Desplat (one of my favorite composers incidentally) who typically elicits a darker sort of melancholy, and there’s really nothing to despise.
I’m an easy touch for this type of movie (I don’t believe there’s such a thing as chick-flicks, only insecure males) and this film touched me in all the right places. Delightful.
The Writerly Element:
There is much here to glean for the writer. At its heart, this movie is about both Julie and Julia trying to find themselves through creating something.
Julia Child fell in love with French cooking, the decadence and buttery artistry of it all. She was smitten and when it came time to ask herself, “Who am I? What can I do that is truly mine?” she looked to her passion: Food. She wouldn’t take no for an answer when the dominatrix headmistress of Le Cordon Bleu told her she had no talent as a cook. Rejection after rejection. We’ve all tasted it and, if we are any shakes at creating anything at all, we shrug it off. It is the only answer to rejection: Screw you, I’m going to do it anyway. Child did not give up, and before long her passion for cooking morphed into a passion for helping other American housewives accomplish the same. Kismet being what it is, she gets involved with a couple collaborators already working on a cook book. For me this is not so much chance as it is the natural culmination of pursuing your goal. To wit: do the thing you love, do it with great gusto, and the Universe will place people and circumstances into your path (or you into theirs) to help realize your goal.
The crushing self-doubt we writers face is evident here as well. The film bounces back and forth between Child (“I’m not a real cook”) and Powell (“I’m not a real writer”). Both are challenged by well- or ill-meaning friends and family with the question: “Why are you doing this?” Powell struggles at the onset with the soul-destroying cry of all beginning writers: “You’re not a writer unless someone publishes you.” (This happens to be untrue, by the by, but it is engrained in our DNA to believe we are only writers if someone buys our work.) We learn that Powell has written half a novel before giving up (haven’t we all?). But even this does not stop Powell, because she knows in her heart that what she really wants to do is communicate, which is what writing is. She tells her husband, “That’s what’s great about blogs, you don’t have to be published, you just go online press enter and there it is.” There is a delicious moment of recognition for me when Powell expresses her joy (and not a little amazement) that her blog has begun receiving comments from people she doesn’t know. I remember clearly the first time a book of mine received a glowing (hell, it was gushing) review by someone I did not know and from whom I had not solicited the review. I wept the first time I read that review, because I knew I had connected with someone in a powerful way.
We’ve all had dreams of winning the lottery (whatever that might mean for you) and exactly how we would feel and react when we saw our numbers come up. That moment is depicted with aching clarity when Julie Powell comes home to a glut of voice mails from editors, agents, and sundry publishing types wanting to represent/publish/interview her. For a struggling writer (Hi, I’m Mott and I’m a struggling writer) this is the kind of scene you rewind and watch over and over again. Because we see it as truth—sure, it’s a shiny, brass-ring kind of truth, but something in us believes it, and we want to applaud for her even while a deeper part of us kind of hates her for it. A similar thing happens when Julia Child’s mammoth cook book is repeatedly struck down (I just love it when Tucci’s character says, “Fuck them.” Now that’s support.) before she finally opens the mail and finds…The Letter. That mythical letter promising money in exchange for our written words. I dare you not to smile along with Child in that moment. And I defy any struggling writer to not rejoice out loud when Julia receives her hardbound copy of the book in the mail and practically explodes with excitement.
In the end, this movie is about passion, and following that passion; finding the thing you love and doing it no matter what. At one point, Julie Powell says, “Julia saved me.” As metaphor for the muse (or that unnameable passion that drives us to write in the hopes that someone somewhere will want to read our words), it doesn’t get any plainer than that.
Call this section the takeaway section. Why, in a nutshell, I think this is an important movie for writers—better yet, why it was important to me. Why bother to watch Julie & Julia? Because I tend to question myself, damning myself for a hack and wondering if it’s worth the effort. Both Julie Powell and Julia Child helped me see the folly in that. It’s clear from the beginning of this film that Julia Child is all about fearlessness. Speaking to her television audience as she cooks, she says, “Never apologize. No excuses, no explanations.” I may just print that out and frame it above my desk.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 Quills.
I will let Julia Child’s character take the mic on this one, because in the end, this is the heart of the writer in all its childlike glory:
“I just want to savor this moment, the moment when anything is possible…you can just imagine they’re going to love everything you did and it’s going to sell a million copies…and it will change the world.”