JULIE & JULIA (2009)

Running Time: 123 mins.                       Rating: 4 ½ Stars/5 Stars         

MPAA Rating: PG-13             

Director: Nora Ephron

Genre: Biography/Comedy/Drama/Romance

Country: USA                                     

 Language: English 

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Cast: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jane Lynch, Vanessa Ferlito

I missed going to a screening of JULIE AND JULIA because I had written it off as a Type 2 chick flick. For the record, a Type 1 is concerned strictly with who is going with whom. Type 2 is aspirational. I saw a longer preview and suddenly it came to me that director Nora Ephron might have been going for something more here. This is a study of two generations: her parents and her children’s. Parallel lives in different times. This, in the strictest sense, is a comedy of manners.

Julia Child arrives in post-war Paris with a Foreign Service husband Paul and a Buick Station Wagon. They have a rather grand apartment surrounded by a wall and with a concierge. Room after room, and a kitchen the size of a studio apartment. Julie is seen arriving at their new apartment over a pizzeria in Long Island City. Here they have 900 sq. feet. It’s seen as a big step up.

Julia’s husband is someone at the US Embassy. They had met in Ceylon during the war when both were in the OSS. As far as we know Julia was a typist and Paul an interior decorator. They served in China together.

Other than that they’ve moved from Brooklyn, we have very little back story about Julie and her husband Eric. He seems to be a magazine editor and she fields calls for some public agency responsible for answering phone calls about 9/11, a job she hates. The Paris of the early 50s, before the cars ate it, is a heaven we’ll never see the likes of again. New York has armed National Guardsmen standing guard at the subway station. Julia eats in a series of woody, comfy restaurants, bistros and cafes. In one a waiter doesn’t just drop off a plate of fish, but bones and filets a sole muniere before serving it. Julie meets her very successful friends at a posh, elegantly designed and probably expensive restaurant where each orders a Cobb Salad but customized by subtracting one ingredient each. Then they go to their smart phones.

Julia is casting about for something to occupy her time, but Julie is searching for some sort of social justification as her friends have succeeded glamorously. After a series of false starts Julia goes to cooking school and meets a couple of Frenchwomen writing a French cookbook in English which turns out not to be in English and she’s drafted to co-write a new version. Julie decides on a whim to cook all 500+ recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days. I don’t know why she didn’t decide to merely cook one recipe a day but it seems one important element is that no one thinks she can finish anything and tell her so. Julia has a Republican father whom she openly despises (he didn’t approve of her husband) and Julie has a mother back in Texas who is a giant pill and acts constantly as a negative Greek chorus whether actually on the phone or in her head. At least Julia’s father is physically present only once and that’s it. Julie’s is ever present, sometimes even online. So when it gets down to it, their very different worlds are: beautiful car-less Paris and incredibly ugly (even for Queens) but car-less Queens.

But this is just the surface manifestation of the generations. Nora Ephron’s parents were top level Hollywood screenwriters. They later became producers big enough to have argued with John Ford, calling him an “anti-Semite” (WHAT PRICE GLORY?,) and to have fired Frank Sinatra from CAROUSEL. I’ve read her mom Phoebe Ephron’s autobiography and met her father, Henry, at his New York apartment. It wasn’t a grand affair on 5th or Park but it was a comfortable place on the Upper East Side and what was important to him wasn’t the grandeur of his apartment but the people who had been in it (Fred Astaire etc.). They lived lives of sweep, ambition and adventure, they had to fight and maneuver amongst monsters, some of whom were their friends. Julia and Paul had fought in a war in faraway places and adapted to alien cultures and languages. They took on challenges as they came, just like Nora Ephron’s parents. The children on the other hand live lives of meanness and constraint, limited to slightly larger living spaces, slightly better locations and jobs which don’t totally suck, but just suck a little, well, are just this side of bearable. This is what life has come to.

And there is another theme that Ephron introduces – disappointment. Throughout the picture both Julia and Julie suffer a series of disappointments. Julia’s equally tall and awkward sister shows up in Paris, marries and returns home. Julia later receives a letter from her announcing her pregnancy. Julia is at first happy, then in tears, and, without a word spoken, is comforted by Paul. On the other hand Julie prepares a beef bourguignon, twice, for Julia’s editor, who cancels dinner because it’s raining and, well, it is Queens. This puts Julie in a bad mood making Eric at first sympathetic then passive-aggressive. They have a fight over nothing and he walks out. For Julia and Paul there is always some unstated “big picture” and for Julie and Eric there is just the minutia of now.

The double climax is when Julia gets her book published at last and Julie finishes her endurance test. There is a bone of contention however. 90-year-old Julia Child learns of Julie’s blog and disapproves strongly. Undoubtedly she regarded Julie’s blog as a mere stunt, something one of those pathetic Guinness wannabes do. Julia could have been more gracious but as an artist she must have resented the parasitical appropriations considered legitimate by the younger generation even if they call it sampling. Now if she had been offered royalties…

Nora Ephron is more conciliatory. She knows that the put down is alienating because in the last respect this generation is making do with what they’ve got. They know Cold Play is mediocre but resent you hitting them over the head with The Beatles. They can never be in Paris circa 1950 so leave it alone. After finishing the last recipe on the last day Julie has a celebratory dinner on the roof of her house amid the lights of Manhattan in the background. She has her victory, on her own terms, as attenuated as they are.

As has been noted elsewhere, Meryl Steep’s performance is impressive, bordering on perfection. She not only is Julia in the big public moments but also was able to project her into moments domestic and very private. An AA nomination seems assured but not knowing what the December Oscar bait brings it may be a bridge too far to award her the little golden statue just yet but its hard to picture anyone overtaking her. Amy Adams makes the shallow and feckless Julie seem nicer than she possibly is. It’s easy to overlook raging selfishness when you have a cute turned up nose like that.

It must be said that this most definitely is a woman’s picture if not a chick flick. Except for the husbands there are no men of any consequence. This is the traditional leading man/female star arrangement that dominated the first 50 years of American cinema. Of course in those days even women’s pictures had to be acceptable entertainment to men. In Japan they had double features. Samurai sword fights for him, domestic shomen-geki for her yet both had to have some cross appeal. Cross appeal is something of a lost art in American cinema. I am interested to see if JULIE AND JULIA succeeds in this endeavor.

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