August 19, 2009

'Julie & Julia': Massacring the Art of French Cooking

Someone has to do something. If not, we'll all be subjected to further attacks from this insidious enemy.

I'm talking about the trend of impeccably researched impersonation, a crutch that talented actors ranging from Charles Laughton to Robert Downey Jr. have used to portray historical characters under the rose-tinted lenses of yesteryear. One of the latest instances of this infernal fad to grace our screens occurs in Julie & Julia, an interminable, Rashomon-esque depiction of one blogger's quest to replicate all of TV-chef-cum-Joan-Sutherland-soundalike Julia Child's recipes from her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In J&J, directed by Nora Ephron, actress Meryl Streep is given what appears to be free rein to present her interpretation of Child's mannerisms--from her singsong vocal inflections to her enthusiastic gesticulations.

To that I say: yuck.

It's one thing to portray a personality accurately and believably. It's another to go over the top and present a caricature. Streep, unfortunately, does the latter. Her bubbly, vociferous imitation of Child is unbearably cartoony, as if it were studied to the nth degree...but not understood. The unlucky viewers of J&J are provided with a series of episodes dating back to Child's years traveling and living in France, where her romance with butter is discovered (surely there's a more interesting dish with which to convey this attraction than sole meuniere) and her prodigious sexual appetites are appeased (by husband Paul, played with little excitement by the usually reliable Stanley Tucci). These moments are interspersed with scenes relating to the Child-emulating blogger, Julie Powell (Amy Adams, in a cutesy performance), and her husband Eric (Chris Messina, who, sadly, does not get much more to do than eat the results of his wife's experiments, crow about how good they are and extol the merits of New York's least-praised borough, Queens).

So what went wrong here? Surely, with this much talent, J&J should've been good, right?

In an ideal world, that probably would've been the result. But director Ephron has let her actors run amok while the script--co-written by Ephron and Powell and based on the latter's eponymous book and the writings of Child and Alex Prud'homme--has meandered into episodic panels that never mesh as a whole. Streep in particular has been let loose, and her brassy portrayal of the much-beloved Child never registers as true. It seems too close...too familiar; the nuances are broad and untrimmed. Child was an extremely interesting person, but she is reduced in the film to a one-dimensional scribe with a funny voice and a penchant for butter.

Movies, in this writer's opinion, should be more roux than butter.

It's not Streep's fault entirely that the film is a failure. Ephron's direction is lax and unimaginative, and the endless jumps from Child's life to that of Powell's become tedious after only a few such instances. Plus, the cinematography offers no substantial insights into Child's love affair with Paris or French cookery...except those that are all too obvious. (For example: Paris is beautiful, butter is delicious, idiots are idiotic.) A more streamlined vision of this story would have been more appropriate--and more palatable, to boot.

But that wouldn't have pleased the masses, would it?

It's too easy to appease audiences by telling them what they already know. Why not tell them what they don't know--but should? After all, a piece of sole cooked in butter may be pleasant though unexciting. Add some salt and sauteed onion, however, and you might have something.

J&J really needed a few cups of nicely browned onions--and a warning: Avoid this flick if you have high cholesterol. As Ephron wrote the script for the Streep-Jack Nicholson vehicle Heartburn, I would expect she'd understand that some meals just don't agree with people.

1 comment:

  1. First of all, I completely disagree! I saw the same movie and I was enchanted. I thought Streep put in an entirely nuanced performance and I liked the intercutting of journeys--Julia who took eight years to write Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Julie who set herself a ticking clock of cooking all the recipies in a year and writing about her experiences.
    Movie Loony, you set yourself up as an expert of France and cooking, but you must understand that not everyone is an expert and some people like movies where there are no car crashes, gerbils or moons exploding--just people setting themselves goals and accomplishing them through the many conflicts they can face. While I found myself entertained by your review, and I look forward to more "Loony" for today, we'll just have to agree to disagree.