JULIE & JULIA: Nora Ephron's Final Film is Fluffy, Sweet, but [Insert Further Food Puns Here]

In recent years, there has been a growing cultural awareness of the extent to which the film industry is by and large dominated by men both in front of and behind the camera. To put a spotlight on women working in film, I am participating in the 52 Films By Women challenge. The requirements: watch at least one (1) new-to-you film per week that has been directed by a woman. As I make my way through the year, I will be reviewing each film I see as part of the challenge here.

52 Films By Women Entry #: 3

Julie & Julia poster.jpg

It’s the 1950s. A tall, enthusiastic American woman arrives in Paris with her diplomat husband. A meal of broiled fish, cooked in butter, and bread, among other culinary delights, inspire her to learn French cooking. Her instructors are taken aback by her boldness and skeptical of her talents; she is, after all, the only woman in the class. But she eventually excels, going on to channel her passion for French cuisine into writing a cookbook for American housewives. Her name is Julia Child.

The year is also 2002. Julie Powell works a miserable job at a Manhattan call center, answering calls from upset family members of 9/11 victims. She’s aspired to be a writer, but has found little success, and watching her friends achieve in their respective careers has become demoralizing. With the support of her husband, she starts a blog with a specific task: to cook all of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year.

Child’s cookbook is the only thing linking Julie & Julia’s dueling true stories, adapted for the screen by writer and director Nora Ephron. Known for her romantic comedies, Ephron’s film focuses on dramatizing the lives of these two women, jumping back and forth in time between the lives of Child and Powell as they proceed through their dreams, and face struggles and challenges to bring them to fruition.

The film’s construction would indicate some symmetry to be examined between the two women. While the stories both see them finding fulfillment through cooking, there’s not much to connect Child and Powell in a dramatically satisfying manner. Each story is pleasant enough on its own, but their juxtaposition suggests an intent that doesn’t seem to be there, a far cry from the structurally tight work of Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally… script.

The narrative also bizarrely prioritizes Powell’s story over Child’s, giving Amy Adams more screentime to work with. Adams is a charming presence, gifting her scenes a light, exploratory touch in her discovery of mouth-watering food. But as the film plays out and her blog becomes more successful, Powell falls further into self-absorption. Her husband, supportive as he his, becomes frustrated with her obsession in prioritizing the sometimes excessively revealing and personal blog over their relationship. It becomes harder to root for her from this point; she doesn’t so much grow or learn from her mistakes as move past them.

Nora Ephron

Meryl Streep
Amy Adams
Stanley Tucci
Chris Messina

Screenplay by
Nora Ephron

The more captivating aspect of the film lay with Meryl Streep, that most committed and chameleonic of actresses. Her portrayal of Child moves beyond imitation into a full recreation. You at once understand why she was so influential a figure. Like any audience who tuned into her cooking show, you quickly move past the bafflement and perplexity of the large stature and bizarre accent and mannerisms to see the genuine joy for what she does. It becomes infectious. Stanley Tucci delivers a strong turn as her husband, delighting in her passion. Her narrative is typical biopic fodder, but one could justify a full feature treatment on the strength of more Streep and Tucci alone.

There is one further connection between Child and Powell late in the movie. While Powell never gets to meet Child, as her blog gains more of a following, eventually leading to a profile in the New York Times, someone inevitably makes mention of the publication to Child. She turns out to not be a fan, which comes as a devastating blow to Powell. Whether this event is true or not, there’s a point that could be made about the false relationships people form with their heroes; famous personalities we feel like we know but inevitably let us down. But the film makes little point of it other than one last bit of conflict in a story largely devoid of such. And it’s a turn that could be included without dramatizing the life of Child herself. Another confusing, unsatisfying choice for this slight, pleasant film; enjoyable to consume, but incomparable to a more satisfying meal.

Julie & Julia is currently streaming on Netflix and is available on DVD & Blu-ray