Basic Plot: Two stories intertwine in this movie about cooking and personal triumph. Julia Child (Meryl Streep) learns how to cook while living in france with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) while in present day New York, a morose Julie Powell (Amy Adams) finds passion in writing a blog about cooking every Child recipe while living with her husband Eric (Chris Messina)
My basic gimmick for my site is rating movies from 1 to 10, with 6-10 meaning I reccomend them overall, and 1-5 meaning you should avoid them. Sounds easy enough, yet this is easily the most arduous movie to rate because I still don't know if I reccomend it . The main issue here is that Julie & Julia seems to try its hardest to both win me over and turn me away, It's directed by Nora Ephron but it feels like it's directed by Nora-just-bit-into-the-world's-sweetest-cupcake Ephron and Nora-just-woke-up-with-an-absinthe-hangover-Ephron. It's two stories in one movie, and not only is the subject matter and performances in one so much more superior than the other, one truly does get the sense that the director could give less of a shit about the second story.
And here lies the inherrent problem with the film: half of it is wonderful and the other half is awful, and deciding whether or not I enjoyed it is like trying to decide to keep watching my favorite televised sport even though the replacement refs operate like blind idiots. So we have to decide whether the good outweighs the bad.
Let's start with the attributes first, which here is essentially every scene of the Julia Child story. Meryl Streep performs beautifully as usual, and her chemistry with Stanley Tucci is not only believable it's a wonder to behold. Watching them is like watching a real married couple, and a happy one at that. Everytime they look at each other, there is such unconditional love in their eyes, such mutual respect in every glance, yet at the same time it's not overdone. They make what is probably my favorite married couple in film.
Child's progression from an American trying to find a skill to a published author is very rewarding to watch. Julia runs into obstacles along the way, such as some of the French cooks who doubt her abilities or her husband's trouble with the Red Scare in America, yet these segments are still entertaining. The Child story grabs you from them get-go and every scene only makes you become more invested in the events that unfold. Part of the reason it all works so well is that the script, simply put, is fantastic, with some really funny and inspiring lines from Streep and Tucci. The direction is great as well. The camerawork gives you enough of France to drink in, yet doesn't linger too much on stretches of scenery or montages. It's the little things in each frame that make the Julia sequences so vivid. The kitchens are bustling with activity and tools, the restuarants are softly lit and classy, and the various homes of Julia and Paul are cozy and inviting. It's a gorgeous film.
In addition, the acting, script, and direction all compliment each other. When the characters have great lines to say, the director knows when to tone down the camerawork to focus on the characters. Streep and Tucci are at their "A" game here and know not to overract but to be real and lovable. And when you want a glimpse of some delicious French food, the film delivers.
Above all else, the Julia story is optimistic. It's not that there isn't drama, there is. It's that the characters have such a steadfast, loving outlook on life that you get swept up into their happy world. They never give up and never take their marriage or passions for granted. Even if Julia Child never got published at the end, the journey would still be worth it because the couple lived a full and joyous life, and we as an audience got to witness it.
And yet although I still believe their segments could be expanded into a perfectly good film on its own, part of the reason they're so fun to watch is due to contrast. That is, every time the film breaks away from the Julie Powell story and goes back to Julia Child, there is a unanimous "THANK GOD" sensation.
Julie Powell lives in New York City with a loving husband yet is not only unsatisfied but fairly miserable because her job involves getting yelled at by people who disagree with her corporation's interest in rebuilding the World Trade Center, and she becomes out of touch with her rich friends. To me, this doesn't sound too bad. She could always apply for another job, and there are plenty of people with shitty jobs who are not so pessimistic, I would know, I work in Customer Support. She could also get new friends. And lastly, she could remind herself that she's living in New York City with a loving husband. I guess her somewhat domineering mother is an issue as well, but come on, she's your mother. Deal with it.
The point I'm making is that when a character has flaws, it's either because of their current environment, their past, or because that's just the way they are. We don't know jack about Julie's past, and her present isn't too shabby, so Julie therefore has no excuse for being the way she is. She is....how she is. So what's she like?
Julie Powell is a brat. Through the entire movie she's whiny, impatient, selfish, childish, negative, annoying, grating, stubborn, and stupid. She has an almost creepy keeness to Julia Child, whom she reveres as some sort of infallible prophet, and when she begins her blog she devotes almost every waking second to it. In the process she becomes frustrated with the actual recipes, alienates her husband. gets in trouble at work, yet almost never takes any responsbility for it. When she and her husband Eric have a heated argument that seems to come out of nowhere, he storms out. She has to be reminded by her sister that she's a bitch (no, seriously) and then they get back together. There is nothing I wanted more than for Eric to follow her back to the apartment and then start packing his shit up to get the hell out of there.
The main issue with Julia, other than the fact she's irritating to hear and watch, is her obsession with Julia Child. She seems to care less about the food, or what the book's overall purpose was, and focuses solely of how wonderful Julia was as a person. And this in turn is what's wrong with the film as a whole. One of the reasons the Julia story works is because it's not only about her. It's not an hour of "Oh look, Julia is great!" It's about France. It's about being an outsider. It's about food. It's about marriage. It's about trying to find passion in life. Julia's entire story is about making something great without compromising your gifts or yourself (such as when she's told to make a more 50's housewife-styled book, which she doesn't). It's not solely about the woman. It's also about what she was trying to accomplish. As a result, one half of the film is about themes like these, and the other half is a woman who has a shallow-minded view about the first half. This really shows just how empty and derivative the Julie story is: it's almost entirely focused on her love of Julia. This is terrible for two reasons.
1. If your story is so focused on someone in the other story, then it implies that you really don't have much to say. You're leeching off of something that's good, when you should be concentrating on making Julie a likeable character. If your only way to make us like Julie is to have her like Julia Child, then you're a lazy writer. It's like when the later seasons of a TV show start doing clip shows, trying to appeal to us by reminding us of the good times rather than making a decent episode.
2. Julie's obsession with Julia makes us think more about the latter and less of the former. Who would you rather hear, The Red Hot Chili Peppers or their fans?
Her character aside, the direction is pretty lazy as well. No inventive camera angles, no interesting lighting or set design. Nothing to keep you involved in what's happening on the screen. The script is weak and uneven, the acting is hammy, and several scenes are jammed in needlessly just to extend the length. As I mentioned above, the Julie story is too derivative. When there's nothing happening, they decide to throw in a reference to Julia Child, such as an extremely awkward and excrutiatingly looooooong scene where Julie and Eric watch an SNL skit mocking Julia.
Another giant failing was when Julie discovers that Julia Child herself found out about the blog.....and doesn't like it. This is a pretty big moment. Her heroine, her golden idol, doesn't appreciate her work.
And then two minutes later the scene is over and it's never mentioned again. They do absolutely nothing with this development and it might has well been cut. In fact, the whole Julie story should have been cut. It only acts as a contrast. It's only purpose is to make us love the Julia sequences even more. But that doesn't make for good filmmaking. We should like both parts of the film. We would be anxious for the scenes in France anyway because they're so masterfully done. If you want to give us two stories, then give us two stories, not one and a half.
To summarize, there are movies that can pull off multiple plotlines, and I think it's because the plotlines are related to a theme, rather than a person. Traffic, for example, had multiple stories but they all dealt with drug trafficking and what it does to people. Crash, although I hated it, had characters connect not just through silly and arbitrary means but also through racism and how it still exists today. Julie & Julia has two plots about one person. In one story we are seeing her, and in the second we are only hearing about her, and this doesn't quite work. It's too referential. It prevents Julie from evolving as a full character. Nothing really happens in the Julie parts. There's no drive, no real drama, and definitely no style.
I could come up with a million metaphors for what it's like watching this movie (for example, like driving through sunlit fields on a road trip and then having to roll your windows up every fifteen minutes because one of the passing fields was recently fertilized) but the main point to take from all of this is that watching this movie is like fighting a battle. You're constantly switching between boredom and delight. And this is simply not how to enjoy a movie. So despite the incredible performances of Streep and Tucci, I cannot reccomend this film.
What Could Have Saved It: Rename the movie Julia and go from there.