Monday, August 3, 2009

Everybody's Free to Feel Good: Julie & Julia

I've been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good movie. Of course, "good" is not only a vague term but a subjective one. And in an era where anyone can post any thought about anything online, the gray area of "good" has never been . . . well, grayer.

For a long time, in college and through most of my twenties, I was all about the indie. I was sooo suspicious of any major studio by-product, and I yelled at the screen during the Oscars. (Fine, I still do.) In the past couple of years, however, I've started to come around and appreciate the fact that if a movie makes me happy, sad, thoughtful, angry (in an agit-prop way, not in an "oh my God, what a horribly-made piece of crap" way), or inspired, no matter where it originated, it is a good movie.

Because let's face it: small movies can suck. Conversely, big-budget movies with name actors and directors can be lovely, uplifting, and, to reclaim an expression often used as an insult by critics, "feel good."

Which brings us to Julie & Julia, a delightful film that puts the "good" in "feel-good." I was able to see it a full two and a half weeks before it was released to the public, and upon exiting the theatre, I could already HEAR the critics' jabs. "Twee." "Too cute." "Light and fluffy."

To which I blow a big ole raspberry. (Or a Bronx cheer for my New York readers.)

Guess what, cynics? Not every good movie has war, dying, and depression. One of my biggest issues with the Academy Awards is that they only seem to reward darker flicks. (Before you yell "Slumdog Millionaire!", remember: child exploitation, torture, more child exploitation.) Don't get me wrong, I was overjoyed that Milk got so much love last year, and I actually thought Saving Private Ryan should have beat out Shakespeare in Love for Best Picture in 1999. (I can still remember the fit I threw in my dorm room when I found out the news.) I adored Revolutionary Road and Munich, and still believe neither got the praise the deserved. What is wonderful about movies, and art in general, is that the good stuff can hit us at our very core, bringing emotions and thoughts we didn't know we had to the surface, and forcing us to explore deeper parts of ourselves.

However, "dark" does not always equal "good." That goes for performances too. I'm the first to admit that I don't always like Renee Zellweger. That said, as Bridget Jones she was brilliant: not only did she nail the British accent, but she was such a sweet, believable Everywoman that I both laughed at her exploits and really cared for her. Ditto Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde, her finest work after Election.

And if we're talking about the two starring actresses in Julie & Julia, Amy Adams was just as stellar in Enchanted as she was in Doubt. Meryl Streep's turn as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada more than rivaled her Sister Aloysius in Doubt. Just because an actress and character makes you laugh as well as/instead of cry, doesn't lessen her impact. And especially in these times of war and bad economies and controversial health care, we need to take the "feel-good" wherever we can find it.

The plot: based on Julia Child's autobiography and Julie Powell's blog-turned-memoir, Julie & Julia follows two women (Streep as Child, and Adams as Powell) with similar names and a shared love of all things delicious. Both have rockin' spouses (Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina) who not only respect and admire their wives, but happily eat their cooking. However, both feel that something is missing: Julia is living in France with her husband Paul, whom she met working for the OSS, and has yet to find a wifely hobby that resonates. Julie is living in Queens with hubby Eric and feeling inadequate at her desk job, especially as her friends grow more wealthy and successful. Each makes a life-altering decision: Julia, to attend the Cordon Bleu cooking school; Julie, to cook her way through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, vol. 1 in one year, and write a blog about her experiences (this was 2002, before everyone and their dog had a blog). Each, of course, encounters obstacles along the way: Julia is the only woman in her class, the cooking school director thinks she has no talent, and constant challenges ensue when she co-writes a cookbook. Julie doesn't often start cooking until late at night (remember, she has a full-time day job), tends to be self-centered at the expense of her friendships and marriage, and struggles with obscure, expensive ingredients, a tiny kitchen, and boiling live crustaceans.

Unless you're living under a rock, you know how the film ends: Julia Child eventually did publish many cookbooks, hosted a successful TV show, and herded in the trend of chefs becoming respected and revered. Julie Powell got a book deal, and then a movie deal. Doesn't make their journeys any less important or riveting.

This is a film about women. We don't get many of those. And don't get me wrong, I LOVE a good romantic comedy. I even like some of the bad ones. But romcoms are not about women. They are about getting a man. In mainstream comedies (and most indie ones, too), the woman is typically the girlfriend or the harpy. In dramas, she's one of those and she's usually really, really repressed or a victim of some kind. This is changing, yes. Very, very slowly. Too slowly.

Julia and Julie don't worry about men. In fact, they know how to pick 'em. Their husbands are AWESOME. Julia may have come with Paul to Paris for his job, but he would follow her to the moon. He listens, praises, and and treats Julia as his equal in every way. (Keep in mind that this is the 1950's. So not the norm for a husband, even in Europe.) Eric is referred to by Julie as a "saint." He also calls her out when she is being incredibly whiny and selfish. Because the best friends and partners not only hug us when we cry and catch us when we fall--they remind us when we're not acting as we should.

What I loved: although the husbands are an integral part of the story, they are not THE story. Julia and Julie's strong relationships with Paul and Eric are established from the beginning. And yet these women want more. They are happy to have wonderful life partners, but they want to be fulfilled individually as well. THIS is where a lot of women-centered movies fall down: they view landing a good man as the end-all be-all. Nope. Not only do good relationships require constant maintenance, but a woman must be independent and secure in herself too. Julie & Julia gets that.

Now, let's talk about the food.

In the summer of 2004, I studied in southern France as part of a law school program. I often say that these six blissful weeks made the three years of hell that is law school completely and totally worth it. Before France, I did not enjoy red wine, stinky cheese, coffee, or fish (particularly salmon). I had never heard of creme fraiche. And let's just say that first year of law school doesn't leave you a lot of time to savor your food.

For those six weeks, I ate better than I've ever eaten in my life. I swear, the French could make wet garbage yummy if they used the right sauce. Five years and endless life changes later, I can still remember three- or four-course meals in mouthwatering detail. From the omelette during my first night in Agen, to whole fish with eyes peering up at me (the eyes have protein!), to the last wedge of Brie I bought before flying out, I have never uttered "mmmm" so much since.

In Julie & Julia, "mmmm" is a constant refrain. This is hard-core food porn at its finest. Glistening meats, fat dollops of chocolate icing, and butter, butter, butter. Day-um. My personal favorite food scene, however, occurs early in the film, when Julia is new to France. She and Paul visit a restaurant and upon taking the first bite of her fish entree, she gets excited in the way that most female characters get worked up about shoes or sex. "Paul! Paul! Paul!" Paul grins. "I know." And I knew too: my first night in Agen, the waiter brought me a fromage omelette. It melted with the touch of my fork. One bite in, I looked at my classmate Jennifer and said, "This is, hands down, the best omelette I've ever had EVER." The absolute perfect balance of eggs and cheese, not too runny or dry, it was the biggest miracle ever to shoot out a chicken's nether regions. I could have sat at L'Imprevu, eating that omelette for the rest of my life, and I would have died a happy woman.

In the wake of an obesity epidemic, it's easy to demonize food, analyzing fat grams and portions and counting points. It's easy to forget that a well-made meal can serve (pun intended) as the ultimate comfort and happiness. And what often comes with the food we remember are the circumstances, whether it's sitting down with your family for barbecue or gossiping over cheesecake with your girlfriends and pretending you're the Golden Girls. Many times, food=love. Of course it's not a replacement for flesh-and-blood relationships, it can be a wonderful supplement, like a vitamin but tastier.

Speaking of which, the women in this film eat. A LOT. When was the last time you saw a film where women not only ate but really appreciated their food? Doesn't happen a lot outside of holiday-themed movies, I can tell you that much.

I hope Julie & Julia does well at the box office. Not that money is always an indicator of quality films (hi, Transformers and the entire Michael Bay oeuvre!), but when Hollywood talks about what to greenlight next, they look at dollar signs and trends. (In their defense, they must do this to a certain degree--it's a business.) If this wonderful film makes a lot of money, perhaps it will push the industry to get behind more well-acted, empowering stories that DON'T have "Oscar bait" written all over them.

So if you think Julie & Julia looks good, GO. I know these are tough times, but vote with your dollars. Hollywood's ear is out for what we want. Give them a reason to listen.


  1. Awesome review! I am seeing this movie the first chance I get.

  2. I concur with Meghan...awesome review! Sounds like it's a must see movie for foodies.

  3. "Unless you're living under a rock, you know how the film ends: Julia Child eventually did publish many cookbooks, hosted a successful TV show, and herded in the trend of chefs becoming respected and revered. Julie Powell got a book deal, and then a movie deal. Doesn't make their journeys any less important or riveting."
    You spoiled it! Ha. :) Nice review, though--Meryl Streep as Julia Child looks awesome.

  4. I'm as much a fan of substantive films about women as the next man in touch with his feminine side, and this is a great review. But Nora Ephron is frightening me away from this one. She's written a great film (obvious) and a fun film (I liked "My Blue Heaven," so sue me), but she's written and/or directed about 10 awful ones. I hate "Sleepless in Seattle," and a special place in hell awaits the woman responsible for "Hanging Up," "Bewitched," "Michael" AND "Lucky Numbers."

  5. Nick: give this a chance. It's definitely not Sleepless in Seattle (though I liked that one!). Plus, Streep's and Adams' performances are spectacular, and the women's stories are pretty cool. I knew virtually nothing about Julia Child before I saw the movie, and I really enjoyed learning about her journey.

  6. OK, but it's purely on your recommendation and it will have to be when it hits DVD. There are too many other movies that I'm legitimately excited for ("Hurt Locker," "Funny People," "District 9," "Time Traveler's Wife") that I probably won't get around to in the next few weeks.

  7. I read this book and really liked it. And I agree with everything you say! I do want more movies about women, especially.

    But I don't know. For the past year I have not made dinner at all. Now I'm venturing back into it again, and I don't need anyone making me feel bad about fixing a chicken Caesar salad instead of rack of lamb or whatever...

    Love the review, though, as always!