Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart take off their art-house aprons to find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating boned duck. This week Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia satisfies their hunger for Meryl Streep.
Henry, I’m so glad Paramount’s marketing machine decided to dispense with film critics altogether in its promotion of G.I. Joe, because if we’d had to discuss another boys’ toys movie we might never have seen Nora Ephron’s outstanding foodie flick Julie & Julia. And I was skeptical going in. The cross-cut, second-wave feminist plot structured around a piece of canonical literature had me dreading a repeat of The Hours, with points about women’s work, bodies and silent suffering underlined, bolded and reiterated ad nauseum. Thankfully, Ephron is a vet at slipping more or less veiled sexual politics into sweet romantic comedy recipes — see Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail, and the slightly underrated Lucky Numbers. Her script is also very funny — especially in Meryl Streep’s hands — despite our colleague Jesse Hassenger’s apprehensions. There are numerous sexual subtexts here, and we’ll get to them, but Julie & Julia has, I think, much richer themes worth exploring.
This is a movie about the media, more so even than The Ugly Truth’s newscaster romance or Funny People’s stand-up bromance, and its two plots straddle moments of intense crisis and development in the publishing world. In 1949, towering Californian Julia Child (Streep), the 20th century culinary world’s Ben Franklin, takes up cooking while living in Paris with her ambassador husband (Stanley Tucci). As she slowly masters the art of French cuisine she becomes involved in a project for a book to render its finer points accessible to American cooks. A little over 50 years later, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) started the blog The Julie/Julia Project, in which she treated the stresses of her life — a job answering calls from relatives of 9/11 victims at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, a move to the wastes of Long Island City with her husband Eric (Chris Messina) — by setting herself an ambitious challenge: prepare every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days.
Julie & Julia is based on the eponymous book by Powell, which was based on her blog, which was based on Child’s magnum opus. The latter began writing as the post-war media hegemony shifted to the United States; the former began blogging as post-9/11 media power moved online. Child later hosted TV programs, and though we see Julie watching snippets of it (and Dan Akroyd’s great parody on Saturday Night Live), Ephron is all about epistolary — “You’ve Got Mail” (electronic or analog) has simply become “You’ve Got Comments.” And yet even Julie’s book deal (she gets 65 messages from literary agents and publishers in one day after a Times profile) is a dated fantasy. Her story is a throwback to a time when blogs were still something of a novelty — her mother calls and cautions not to “hurt yourself blogging” — and getting a book deal from one was still unusual (and possible). What else, aside from pre-recession publishing (and real estate — one of Julie’s awful “friends” is some kind of terrifying property developer), does this food movie have something buttery and meaty to say about?
Were blogs really that much of a novelty back in 2002? Even so, the way Julie struggles with the decision to start one was silly; it was like watching someone worry about whether or not they should edit a Wikipedia entry. What the hell’s the difference? Unless she planned to use blogging as a substitute for motherhood. But more on that in a moment.
First, thematically, the two story strands complement each other well on paper, vis a vis the media angle, as you point out. But for me it wasn’t so neat in practice. In last year’s Doubt, Amy Adams turned in a strong performance playing off of Meryl Streep: a teary mouse under the tutelage of a lion. It worked well as real-life allegory, too: the Grand Dame dominating the next generation of young starlets. Here, though, Adams is competing to hold our attention when Streep’s off-screen, and she’s just not that good. Hell, no one is. Streep is a national treasure, man; they should put her on Auto-Oscar until she dies. “To suggest that she has outdone herself [in this film],” A.O. Scott writes in his review, “is only to say that she’s done it again.” Even Ephron seems electrified by her; in contrast to the Child sections—which were rife with unnecessary anti-McCarthy digs, because Hollywood just can’t pass up the chance to knock Mr. Blacklist—the contemporary Julie portions almost seem shot by another director; lifeless settings, overscored, overnarrated, as if to compensate for the lack of verve. “I’m not Julia Child,” Julie admits late in the film. Yeah, and you ain’t no Streep, either.
Moving on: was there something kind of condescending toward women about this movie? (Not that it’s Ephron’s fault; because both narratives are based on autobiographical source material, she has her hands tied to some extent.) The obvious subtext was a connection between food and sex; in one of the earliest scenes, we see Child slip a sliver of fish into her husband’s quivering mouth, and from there on in it’s all about the carnality of consumption. Both couples have healthy(ish) sex lives, but both are childless; this is especially a major disappointment for Julia (thankfully underplayed by Ephron and treated with masterful subtlety by Streep). For both women, though, cooking becomes a means of compensating for their lack of offspring, a way to give their lives meaning; cooking is the coitus, the resulting food is the child—except, of course, it’s a far inferior (and more ephemeral) product, and thus the process is repeated ad infinitum. It’s like, if you can’t bear a child (a woman’s central purpose), you can at least be a great cook (a wife’s secondary purpose). I suppose in Child’s case there’s something empowering there, about transforming something potentially confining into a means of fortune and celebrity. But in Julie’s case? Does she really need to define herself through cooking in blogging’s wild frontier days? It’s the 21st Century—and she’s in New York City, no less.
Obviously, as you point out, anytime a female character achieves something like Julia and Julie’s successes, the fact that they did so by excelling at female-coded activities (like cooking) can be a problem. Are they merely rewarded for being especially good “women,” and therefore helping to uphold a fundamentally conservative model of female achievement? I don’t think that question applies here though, or at least not in such plain terms. Both women are competing in fields dominated by men: Julia at the French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, where all the other “serious” students are men (World War II vets, no less!) and the female principal hates her guts; Julie as a writer with a soul-crushing day job. Both take up cooking for different reasons — Julia out of boredom while her husband works at the embassy, Julie as therapy — and do it (initially at least) for personal satisfaction rather than to feed nuclear households. This in turn raises the problem of narcissism, an inescapable issue whenever discussing blogs, and the subject of one of Julie’s several breakdowns. I don’t really buy that acknowledging the pervasive narcissism of blogging absolves Julie of said narcissism, but that’s too vast a topic to broach in this blog post.
One last distinction between Julie, Julia and the models of female behavior their food fetishism evokes: both occupy class positions that mean they don’t need to cook a meal every night. Food in Julie & Julia is a source of pleasure rather than a tool to help our childless protagonists achieve some socialized performance of femininity. Both cook because it makes them feel good, and it helps that their husbands enjoy their cooking too — hence your food-sex analogy. Incidentally, I was so charmed by Tucci and his chemistry with Streep that I almost missed Ephron’s tacit endorsement of heterosexual marriage at all costs. The ingredients for a happy life in a Nora Ephron movie: a spouse, a book deal and money for food.
(photo credit: © 2009 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved. All images are property of Sony Pictures Entertainment)