If ever there was a poster girl for butter, it’s Julia Child, the doyenne of TV cooks, whose story – or at least the part of it that began in France – is told in the new Nora Ephron movie Julie & Julia. This comedy-drama cuts and splices the lives of Child, who brought French cooking into every American home thanks to her TV shows in the 1960s, and Julie Powell, a young New York office worker who writes a blog about spending a year cooking her way through all the recipes in Child’s landmark French cookery book for Americans.
Child never tired of singing (or perhaps warbling would be a more appropriate verb) the praises of butter so it’s amazing that during her year-long cook-a-thon, Julie Powell (according to the film) didn’t seem to put on a single pound in weight. But then, she wouldn’t – because her part of the film, although based on real life, smacks of the aspects of Nora Ephron’s previous movies that were particularly unrealistic, irksome and formulaic.
There’s the wisecracking best friend (see Rosie O’Donnell in Sleepless in Seattle), the shabby chic apartment (You’ve Got Mail), the obligatory scenes of bonding in front of the telly (watching Casablanca in When Harry Met Sally, An Affair to Remember in Sleepless in Seattle etc). Somehow, Ephron even manages to sneak that old Annie Hall influence in there too: the lobster scene? Hello?
I have no aversion to movies that bear little relation to real life, but when you have a film in which the heroine – sorry, one of the heroines – works in a call centre dealing with the bereaved of 9/11, the glossy Hollywood sheen doesn’t seem appropriate.
Where it works just fine is in the scenes, woven through the film, in the Paris of Julia Child’s experience in the 1950s. Paris in any period has a romantic charm but Child’s Paris particularly so, because it’s where she discovered her calling, having already – as we know from documents released after her death – worked as a spy. In Paris, where her new husband works for the American embassy, she casts around for something to occupy her time and eventually comes up with the idea of taking classes at the Cordon Bleu cooking school.
As a Brit, I didn’t know anything much about Julia Child. And what little I did know about her – that she had a funny, high, comedy sort of a voice – was only through a hilarious (and now, I realise, totally accurate) impersonation by the brilliant jazz musician and off-the-wall raconteur Marty Grosz who used to offer an omelette signed by Julia Child as a prize if anyone could guess the tune he was singing, from its obscure verse.
Ever the chameleon, Meryl Streep does an amazing job of bringing Child to life (though it does come as a surprise to learn that she’s supposed to be just 37 at the start of the film). An ungainly, gallumphing, well-built (6 foot 2) and rather plain woman, Child comes across as having been quite at ease with her appearance – even amidst a sea of petites Parisiennes. While they may have been picking at their tiny portions like sparrows, Child devours food and relishes every opportunity for a new gastronomic experience. Streep gets the voice, the breathiness and the near-hysteria and certainly seems to embody the character, but it’s not a performance that really sheds much light on the character. She’s not onscreen enough.
Amy Adams, as Julie Powell, is onscreen plenty, however – and she is undoubtedly the less interesting and intriguing of the two heroines. She is also, as portrayed here, the 2009 version of Sally from Ephron’s best film, When Harry Met Sally. Once you notice the similarities between Meg Ryan in WHMS and Amy Adams in J&J, it’s difficult not to start playing spot the lack of difference. They have the same mannerisms (watch how the teary and tipsy Julie brandishes her wine glass), the same way of enunciating key lines (“I could write a blog. I have thoughts..”), and when Julie has her “meltdown” on the kitchen floor, you almost expect her to wail “and I’m going to be 40” a la Sally.
For me, the big surprises came towards the end when we realise that Julia Child was still alive while Julie Powell was conducting her blogging and cooking project. The next surprise is that Child lived to the ripe old age of 91, despite the copious amounts of butter she had consumed throughout her life. And the third is that for all this is a feelgood film, there is no attempt to avoid the fact that Child, when interviewed during Powell’s blogging/cooking project, expressed total disinterest in it.
Actually, here’s another surprise: that Ephron didn’t just call the film When Julie Didn’t Meet Julia.