Last night, I went with a friend to see Julie & Julia, a movie that abruptly lost me exactly halfway through. Although it’s a movie that has all the trappings of a good chick-flick, with enough beautifully photographed food to appeal to male foodies too, it contains some calculated insults that should drive all conservatives away from the theater without leaving any money behind.
The story line is an interesting one. The Julia of the title is Julia Child, played with rambunctious energy by Meryl Streep, who must have watched every minute of Julia Child footage ever filmed. Over the course of the movie, we see her from her rapturous arrival in France in 1949 through to the moment she finally gets her first cook book published. Her romantic marriage, her Cordon Bleu experiences, her agonizingly long writing effort, her husband’s brush with McCarthyism, and the various postings she and her State Department husband had throughout Europe all get attention.
The Julie of the title, played in too-cute-for-words style by Amy Adams, is a secretary in a New York government office dealing, in August 2002, with the aftereffects of 9/11. She’s frustrated by the fact that her friends, who are bitches without virtue, are enormously successful, while she, at 29, has failed to become a famous writer. Cooking is her only solace. When one of the hated friends starts a blog, Julie decides she can do one too. Her blog gimmick is that she will cook 524 Julia Child recipes over the course of a single year. Her blog takes off, and we watch her triumphs and frustrations as she deals with lobster slaughter, aspic, and burned stew. Her husband, an endlessly good humored and supportive man, gets into a snit once, rightfully calling her a completely self-obsessed neurotic, but he comes around.
Although based upon two books — Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously and Julia Child’s My Life in France — Nora Ephron, who wrote the script, is the movie’s dominant voice. This is a good thing because Nora Ephron is a very funny and elegant writer. She manages to balance quips and pathos and bathos like a true professional. She also manages to blend rather seamlessly two entirely different books, the first a traditional memoir of a rather unusual life in the 1950s, and the second a bio-blog by a woman who comes across as a self-involved twit.
The acting is also excellent. Meryl Streep completely inhabits the Julia Child character. From the first minute we see her striding across the screen in platform shoes that have her towering over everybody, she seems to be Julia Child reincarnated. There’s never a slip or a hint of “actorliness. ” She is Julia Child. And she is as close to Julia Child as I ever hope to come. While Child’s ebullience and optimism are, at first, charming, they eventually become completely exhausting. The constant whooping and shrieking and clumping wear a person down.
Amy Adams, too, does a great job. If anyone can make a whining, neurotic, self-centered character charming and likable, it’s Adams. It says an awful lot about the character that, despite Adams’ cute blinks and little smiles, I still came away wanting to smack Julie — and that was despite a certain amount of sympathy for the character. After all, I myself am an obsessed blogger, and it’s not pretty. Which is my point — I wouldn’t want to see a movie about me, and eventually I got sick and tired of the charmless, driven Julie too.
Where the movie shines is in its representations of food and 1950s Paris. Although my tastes are simple, and the notion of a stuffed duck wrapped in pastry has me grabbing for the Tums (and grabbing for the Tums is a running joke in the movie), it’s still a feast for the eyes to watch Julie and Julia take lovely, butter-rich food out of the oven or off the stovetop. I didn’t actually leave the movie feeling hungry, but I did leave feeling gastronomically satisfied. The 1950s set pieces are lovely too. Every detail of the time and place is lovingly recreated, something I appreciated. I’ve never forgiven the Dr. Zhivago filmmakers for making an epic movie about the Russian Revolution, all the while keeping Julie Christie in her 1960s-style hair and make-up, so I’m grateful for movies that take the time and make the effort to get it right.
So far, it’s a lukewarm review, right? Good writing, good sets, good food, good acting, utterly irritating characters. Normally, I would say, go see it for yourself and see whether, unlike me, you like the characters and manage to be charmed by the whole movie. But I’m not going to say that. I’m going to recommend very strongly that, if you’re a conservative, you ignore the movie entirely.
I started getting uncomfortable when Julia Child and her husband used the fact that Julia’s Pasadena-based father was visiting to do a little McCarthy and Republican bashing. Still, it’s pretty much de rigueur in movies that involve the 1950s for filmmakers to show their liberal bona fides by bashing McCarthy. We’ve known since the 60s that Hollywood will never accept that old Joe was right, and the government did have a ridiculous number of communists and communist sympathizers anxious to do harm to the United States. In Hollywood-land, only the excesses of McCarthyism (and there were indeed such excesses) live on in collective memory. I therefore stayed with the movie despite this pro forma McCarthy indictment.
Where the movie lost me was during a scene in the modern era. Its genesis is the fact that Julie, whose blog is taking off, is expecting a famous food publisher for dinner. The night before the planned dinner she had made Julia’s Boeuf Bourguignon — and then burned it. The next day, she calls in sick to work so that she could remake the time consuming dish. She carefully (and falsely) blogs that she is sick and then blogs later that, miraculously, she is well again, so as to lend an air of verisimilitude to an otherwise unconvincing narrative.
On her return to work the next day, she discovers that her boss has read this false blog entry, and is offended that she’d referred to work and that she’d obviously lied about her health. Then (and I’m quoting from memory here), this bit of dialogue emerges from the bosses mouth: “You’re lucky I’m a nice guy. If I were a Republican, you’d be fired. But I’m not (or I’m trying not to be) a schmuck.” (Half the Marin audience laughed.)
I was offended. I have no idea whether the line originated in Julie Powell’s blog or her book, or if it came from Nora Ephron’s own fertile, Democratic brain. I really don’t care where it started. All I know is that, as a conservative, I was offended when a completely gratuitous and very crude insult suddenly popped out of a character’s mouth. It didn’t advance the movie. It had no relationship to the plot. It was just thrown in to assuage some writer’s or filmmaker’s bone-deep need to be offensive to half the country. After that, I pretty much tuned out the rest of the movie, staying only because my friend was enjoying it.
Bottom line: Why pay $10 to see a movie that includes gratuitous insults that have no purpose other than to show the movie-maker’s own ugly biases?
Cross-posted at Right Wing News
UPDATE: Welcome, Big Hollywood readers. I’d be delighted if you stayed a few minutes and looked around. And as the Beverly Hillbillies said, “Y’all come back now.”