The 4:00 p.m. Sunday matinee of Julie & Julia was the most crowded non-festival theater screening I’ve seen since probably The Dark Knight. Add to that the fact that the four ticket buyers immediately in front of me requested the senior discount and you have my contribution to this year’s run of “Has Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada, Mama Mia!) Supplanted Will Smith as Summer’s Sure Thing” stories. Or perhaps we can come up with some nifty phrase like “Passion Dollars” (used to describe one demographic whose business isn’t normally courted at the multiplex but went in droves to see one particular film making it a much bigger hit than anticipated) to describe the portion of the film’s gross that comes from people who aren’t lining up to see Gl: Joe, Terminator Salvation, or Star Trek.
Such speculations are more journalistic than critical. To put the critic’s hat on for a moment, the film was better than I expected, though not quite as good as the hype. Nora Ephron’s script is…well, not subtle exactly, but remarkably restrained by contemporary standards. By which I mean thematic parallels and motif perhaps only get verbalized once or twice rather than ad nauseum. A good example is how early in the film Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) comments on the size of the kitchen in her loft apartment, both as a comment about the difficulty of her task and about the the relative emphasis placed culturally on eating in. Later in the film, she visits a Smithsonian exhibit that recreates Julia Child’s kitchen, and Ephron the director dissolves from the museum set to the recreated kitchen where Julia and husband Paul Child (played by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci, respectively) reside. We (mercifully) don’t get a second scene with Powell’s narcissistic friends who brag about their own exploits at a Cobb Salad lunch, and phone messages from Julie’s unsupportive mother are paralleled with a single appearance from Julia’s father–who bates his daughter with his pro-McCarthy politics.
If the film goes down easy, perhaps it is in part because it appears self-aware of its themes and carefully crafted to promote its self-actualization, empowerment motifs while not denying that both Child and Powell had support in their quests that not everyone who wants to change her own life might. In fact, there may be the tiniest hint of feminine fantasy in the film’s stew of supportive masculinity–made all the more suspect by the knowledge that Powell’s second memoir (forthcoming) chronicles her extra-marital affair.
But, as Powell’s husband Eric (Chris Messina) says in the film, it’s the Julie/as in your head that matter, not the real-life Julie/as that may be different from whatever figures you’ve imagined to inspire you.
The film’s parallel structure makes it drag a little, and the absence of any real conflict (we know Julia will get her book published and Julie’s blog will be a success) does make the film drag slightly. That said, the best parts are actually the seasonings: a portrayal of a loving, middle-aged marriage, a bond between sisters, a pile of onions that shows Child’s competitive streak, the resistance the women get from other women (another parallel motif), a riff on the Talking Heads’s “Psycho Killer,” and a brief shot of Paul drawing circles on the wall to mark which pots go where.
Streep’s performance is the flashiest, and she has earned every bouquet she gets. But if there is an Oscar lock, it ought to be Tucci, who avoids all the obvious muggings a lesser actor would give to Paul, content to give restrained response shots that carefully construct a character of grace and sensitivity. When one McCarthy era government agent asks if he is a ho-mo-sexual and then takes umbrage at his bemused smile, Tucci’s delivery says volumes about Paul and allows Child’s one line mention of his woundedness in a letter to say volumes about their marriage.
Julie & Julia, He’s Just Not that Into You, and I Love You, Man are all 2009 releases and each appears anxious to explore the marriage relationship (forging it or crafting it) rather than simply depict the fanasy infatuation. Perhaps this is indicative of some sort of cultural shift, as films about infatuation love skew younger (think Twilight and Harry Potter). Perhaps it is simply a cycle or a phase. Whatever the reason, these comedies do provide a refreshing change of pace from the sexploits and smashing steel of summer–and Julie & Julia is certainly the best of the lot thus far.