**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina
screenplay by Nora Ephron, based on the books Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
directed by Nora Ephron
by Bryant Frazer It can hardly be disputed that Meryl Streep is among the finest, or at least the most finely proficient, of actors currently working. It's a drag, then, to see her resort to caricature and impersonation, even when she's sending some voltage through a limp premise. Riffing on demon-editor Anna Wintour, she ended up adding pathos to a cartoonish character, swallowing whole not just the working-girl melodrama that was The Devil Wears Prada, but also her poor co-star, Anne Hathaway, who appeared to be hanging on for dear life to a carnival ride. That speaks well to Streep's enduring star power, but I've always felt the effect was a little ostentatious--like one of the Rockefellers showing up to work at a soup kitchen over the holidays. It raises the question: Can a mediocre film really be redeemed by the presence of a terrific performance?
That's the question that will face critical viewers of Julie & Julia, a barely-there side-dish of a movie that struggles to blend mildly flavourful biopic with cheesy personal memoir and ends up making an insipid hash out of the material. Inspired by the experiences of New Yorker Julie Powell, who blogged her effort to follow every recipe in Julia Child's classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the film spends most of its time cutting between Powell (Amy Adams) in contemporary Queens and Child (Streep) living in Paris, where she resolves to learn how to cook as a professional (in an era when only men were professional cooks). It's ostensibly Powell's story, but forget about that: it's nearly impossible to imagine the film would have been made without the attachment of Streep, whose portrayal of Child precisely mimics the woman's gawky demeanour, slightly nervous mannerisms, and trilling vocalese. (Who else might have taken on this role, and made something of it?) It's quite a stunt, and taken out of context it's borderline bizarre. To a theoretical audience that's unfamiliar with Julia Child and/or biopic convention, I can only imagine it will play as burlesque--a Monty Python sketch in perpetual motion, burbling back up into pop culture after years under the surface.
Writer-director Nora Ephron doesn't take chances: there's not merely a scene where Powell and her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), watch a classic episode of Child's famous TV show, "The French Chef", re-created with Streep in black-and-white (Powell declares her "adorable," and you have to wonder what Child would have thought of that), but another as well where they pop in Dan Aykroyd's SNL parody of "The French Chef", presumably establishing Child's icon status for viewers too young to be familiar with her. It might have been more interesting, by the way, if the "French Chef" episode Ephron excerpted featured the real Julia Child, thus explicitly establishing the dissonance between the existence of Child as an actual historical figure and her presence as a long-distance muse to Powell, who imagines Child working alongside her, chuckling as the two of them prepare beautiful meals together. Instead, Ephron grafts two omniscient third-person narratives together, finding tenuous connections in the dialogue or the story that serve as an excuse to toggle back and forth from one to the other.
While there are affecting moments in Child's story--Ephron makes something of her childlessness, the devotion of her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), and her close friendships with her sister (the ubiquitous Jane Lynch) and other women--Powell's is formula spunky-chick autobiography. Her job is unfulfilling, so she starts writing as an outlet for her pent-up creativity. Fed up with her dedication to self-expression, her kind-but-suffering husband leaves her, then rejoins her a few scenes later to the strains of some on-the-nose pop song. Vindicated by the found audience for her ruminations on life, love, butter, mushrooms, ducks, and lobsters, she snags a publishing deal and lives, for all intents and purposes, happily ever after.
The film's only real emotional kick arrives once it emphasizes not the closeness of its two main characters, but the hopeless distance that separates them. Powell yearns to one day meet Child (who was then nearly 90 years old, meaning such an encounter was unlikely); after Powell's blog earns her the notice of THE NEW YORK TIMES and therefore a degree of notoriety, she learns that Child herself has voiced a somewhat low opinion of Powell's endeavour. In this way, Julie & Julia considers what happens to a young writer when someone they respect and idolize turns out to act a little dickish towards them. Julie is hurt, but she doesn't allow the smackdown to stunt her forward progress. The film's single most evocative image comes near its very end, as Julie and her husband visit the Smithsonian National Museum of American History's exhibit of Julia's kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eric takes several pictures of Julie with a wall-mounted photograph of Child, and Julie leaves behind the token offering of a gigantic slab of butter, declaring, adoringly, "I love you, Julia." And then the camera pans back across to Julia's kitchen, which exudes an inviting warmth that's ultimately illusory--it sits behind a rope that blocks access to visitors. A simple tableau, it reminded me immediately of that shot of Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu at the end of Citizen Kane, its "No Trespassing" sign conveying a silent rebuke to anyone who thought they could get close enough to the man to truly figure him out.
Unfortunately, nothing else in the film supports that reading. Ephron seems pretty happy with her ability to pinpoint what makes Julia tick--Child's middle-aged determination to reinvent her life functions here as a proto-feminist impulse that helped transform her into a woman who changed the world, or at least changed the way the world ate. Powell is the story's ostensible protagonist, but she's simultaneously systematically marginalized by Julie & Julia's strategy of comparing her life to Child's, invariably placing her haphazard endeavours in the very long shadow of the older woman's ambition and erudition. This narrative schizophrenia yields an almost comically uneven viewing experience, and yet the resulting (123-minute!) film comes off as completely pleased with its relentlessly feel-good approach to both stories. It's deliberately light, to the point of utter inconsequentiality. I suppose it works in a way as a comment on the pumped-up "Top Chef" school of celebrity-chef worship that dominates today's foodie culture, and fans of pure thespian technique will find lots of ways to admire and dissect Streep's contribution to the picture. But I can't think of many other good reasons to spend the time on it.
|Click for hi-res BD captures|
THE BLU-RAY DISC
The Blu-ray Disc release from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is typically excellent. Julie & Julia's 1.85:1, 1080p (MPEG-4/AVC) transfer reproduces a tight, natural film-grain structure and renders Stephen Goldblatt's colourful cinematography and production designer Mark Ricker's elaborately-dressed sets cleanly and sharply without apparent noise-reduction, edge-sharpening, or other degradations to the image. Details are crisp but contrast doesn't look exaggerated, and the picture maintains an exceptional dynamic range in the highlights and shadows alike. It's very easy on the eyes. There's not a lot to say about the film's 5.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack (English only), except that it's everything you expect from this kind of movie. Dialogue is intelligible and clearly defined in the mix, while the surrounds are used to build out an enveloping but not intrusive soundfield, mainly by spreading around the score's instrumentation and various ambient and environmental FX. There's also an English "audio description track" for the visually impaired (in which a woman delivers pithy descriptions of the on-screen action in a hurried voiceover layered atop a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix), plus a French Dolby Digital 5.1 track.
The film-length audio commentary has Ephron talking about the production in a highly casual fashion. It's fairly standard stuff, with Ephron singling out the occasional cameo by someone peripherally related to the real-life story, discussing scouting and shooting locations, or revealing her own research into Child's life story. Those occasionally interesting observations are tossed off in-between too-regular stretches of dead air, making this track a long and not especially rewarding sit.
This disc includes a proprietary Sony Blu-ray feature I've never encountered before, MovieIQ, which delivers basic movie information to your Blu-ray player via a live Internet connection. In this case, that amounts to your typical scene-specific trivia in addition to some other interesting tidbits, like the title of the cut from the film's score that's playing at any given moment, or detailed cast and crew listings. You can't do anything really cool, like listen to that piece of music without dialogue or SFX, so anyone who's ever used IMDb won't be too knocked out by this. Still, there are interesting interactive possibilities. Curious to know the name of the guy playing Julie's cheese clerk at Dean & DeLuca? Just hit your "enter" button and you'll get the name of the principal actors in the current scene.
When a special icon appears, you can press the green button on your remote to have the recipe for the applicable dish e-mailed to you. (To enable this option, you have to input your email address using an on-screen keyboard at the beginning of the flick.) Well, actually what you get is a link to a website (www.juliasrecipecollector.com) with links to PDF versions of the recipe(s) you selected, along with every other recipe in Julie & Julia. It would be easier for everyone involved if Sony would print the damn recipes in a booklet and slip it into the Blu-ray case, although "booklet" seems to have become a dirty word where Hollywood home-entertainment divisions are concerned. At any rate, I am totally cooking eggs benedict next Sunday morning. Sadly, MovieIQ comes with a rather ridiculous limitation: you can't use the standard Blu-ray pop-up navigation menu without turning off MovieIQ, making it hard to find the recipes you want without sitting through the whole movie again. Ah, well. Perhaps one day technology will catch up with our dreams. BD-Live features were not enabled in time for advance reviewers to sample them, but if history is any guide, they're underwhelming.
The video-based extras are all encoded in MPEG-2 HD with Dolby Digital 2.0 audio. "Friends and Family Remember Julia Child" (47 mins.) is the main event, offering reminiscences by people who knew Child, including her friend Susy Davidson, her grand-nephew Alex Prud'homme, her editor Judith Jones, chef Jacques Pépin, French Culinary Institute founder, and CEO Dorothy Cann Hamilton. They're on hand to testify to and help explain Child's single-handed transformation of the American cooking scene, her resistance to sponsorship, and her support of Planned Parenthood and other liberal causes, among many other aspects of her life. Their stories are bolstered by a metric ton of archival photographs, and you come away from this piece feeling like you've gotten much more valuable insight into the woman's life and professional attitudes than the film itself could give you. Karri Lucas and Daniel Gross produced the piece.
"Secret Ingredients: Creating Julie & Julia" (28 mins.) is one of those behind-the-scenes featurettes that combines morsels of making-of info with lots of talking-heads hagiography, as various actors and producers gab about how great everyone involved in the picture was and hold forth on how inspirational the story is. The real Julie Powell shows up to say how delighted she was to hear of the involvement of Ephron and Adams, and Child's niece, Philadelphia Cousins, shows up to talk about how her mother, Dorothy McWilliams/Cousins, is portrayed. There's a nice bit demonstrating how the film's culinary consultant, Susan Spungen, and executive chef, Colin Flynn, worked in a tent set up at Silvercup Studios to prepare the food that was seen on screen. There are short segments, too, on the film's location shooting and costuming. Daniel Gross and Caddie Hastings produce.
The rest of the disc is filled with fairly minor stuff. "Julia's Kitchen" (23 mins.) shows how Child's Cambridge kitchen ended up at the Smithsonian and takes a closer look at the space itself. Also on board is a series of video "cooking lessons." "Poaching Eggs with Julia Child & Jacques Pépin" (4 mins.) and "Making Hollandaise Sauce with Julia Child & Jacques Pépin" (3 mins.) each begin with too-long film clips followed by upconverted SD excerpts from the program "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home". Three more lessons seem to have been created as promotional pieces for the film's theatrical release. Of the trio, only "Mark Peel Prepares Scrambled Eggs" (5 mins.) really covers the subject in the time allotted. While the dishes prepared in "Suzanne Goin Prepares Braised Beef Short Ribs" (6 mins.) and "Steven Lewandowski & Drew Nieporent Prepare Butter Poached Maine Lobster" (5 mins.) both look delightful, the five-minute lessons (minus time for the promo spiel and a few film clips) are almost absurdly truncated. It's not clear whether the latter three recipes have anything to do with Julia Child herself, beyond the idea that her ideas have thoroughly permeated and transformed the American food scene.
The disc is rounded out with HD previews for Angels & Demons, Michael Jackson's This Is It, Coco Before Chanel, An Education, Every Little Step, Whatever Works, Bewitched, The Holiday, Made of Honor, and "Damages" Season 1, plus, of course, the current incarnation of the Sony clips reel Blu-ray Disc is High Definition!. Refreshingly, not one of these is forced to play when you spin the disc up. Originally published: December 7, 2009.