In real life, people tell me I come off as a curmudgeon. Well, by people I mean my close family and friends. And by curmudgeon, I mean a word I can’t reprint in a blog I intend to be safe for the kind of kids who watch Pixar movies and can operate Google. And by come off as, I mean am. I suppose it would come as a surprise to a casual interactor in my life that I’d love a movie like Julie & Julia. I’m the kind of person who hopes to make the phrase “infectiously charming” a cliché. This movie is infectiously charming. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing at the time, this movie will distract you from it with its incessant perkiness.
The movie is an adaptation of two books, Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child with Alexander Prud’homme. Julia Child’s story is of the beginnings of her career as a chef. Julie Powell’s sections are an adaptation of her blog, wherein she tried to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s first cookbook in a year. Meryl Streep is Child, and received her mandatory lead actress nomination at the Oscars. I swear, no matter what that woman does, it’s incredible. It’s an acknowledged truth within my film-watching circle of acquaintances that if the award were given out to the true recipient every year, Meryl Streep would go home with it annually. Amy Adams could charm the white out of rice with her performance as Julie Powell. As every man on earth must, I think I’ve fallen in love with her. I’m sorry you had to find out this way, babe.
Both plotlines center on the topics of food and marriage. Julia and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) are very happily and very passionately in love in early 20th century Paris. She and her husband may or may not have been spies. The movie starts out with her not knowing how to handle the amount of free time she has in Paris while her husband is working at the American Embassy (or something). She tries lessons of all sorts (I forget if she tried basketweaving or not) and eventually finds herself in a cooking school for novice American wives in Paris. When she finds this tedious and boring, she asks the woman in charge of admissions if there is anything more involved she can participate in. In a class for “les professionels seulement”, she discovers her competitive spirit and starts outcooking the guys. This leads to her collaborating with Louisette Bertholle writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking; a doorstopper of a cookbook at over 700 pages.
Julie and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) are also happily married and also passionately in love in early 21st century New York City. She and her husband have recently moved into an apartment above a pizzeria. Their story starts with both of them wondering what direction their lives are taking, when Julie decides that in her spare time, she’s going to take up blogging (as one of her very vapid and superficial “friends” has done and seems to be the rage these days). When asked what she’ll blog about, Eric suggests that if she likes food so much, why shouldn’t she blog about it? Starting this project leads her to attempt to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking within a year, and write about it online. This blog becomes a legitimately big thing in New York and abroad, leading to interviews in the Times and book offers.
As I said in my review of Back to the Future, happy movies are not well-loved movies. What do I know–Meryl Streep, as I mentioned earlier, was nominated for Best Lead Actress. The movie itself is surprisingly special and novel in its absolute refusal to be something special. It celebrates the mundane parts of life that we overlook in the grand scheme of things. Drinks with loved ones, marriages of friends, cats, butter. These are all things that, for better or worse, at the end of the day we seem to have forgotten. I should also mention now that I recognize that not all comedies must be screamingly funny. It’s the place of a movie like Airplane! or Hot Tub Time Machine to be the funniest movie released to multiplexes in time for Christmas so that the skill it takes to write a movie so densely saturated with gags can be overlooked by Academy voters. Some comedies are just meant to bask quietly in the sweeter side of life and give us a vacation from having to deal with the ugly truths of our world.
Julie & Julia is most certainly that breed of comedy. While the stories indeed feature protagonists of the pluckiest persuasion and everything starts out and works out happy-happy joy-joy (guys, seriously, they’re about the woes of publishing the very books they were based on, not a lot of leeway for the ending there) it takes time out to acknowledge the real world in each of its stories. No happily married couple stays that way without fighting, forgiving, talking and communicating. Julia and Paul, Julie and Eric all share their troubles with friends, arguments, commies and mothers with each other like good couples should. All of them face rough times. If this were a dramatic feature, I’d wonder how they get out of it.
There is a place in the world for all kinds of comedies and all kinds of movies. This movie isn’t anything special, but even features that aren’t anything special have qualities that set them apart. This movie is a twin narrative whose threads never quite converge. They’re presented as parallel stories of sweetness and kindness, and that is enough. All this movie aims to say is that life can be good and happy if you’re willing to work for it and not take anyone around you for granted. While it isn’t one of the great movies, I’d still call it great viewing for a day with either nothing to do but sit or when the weatherman’s forecast rain for this evening. THREE AND A HALF STARS