Monday, September 14, 2009

Julie & Julia

Qualifiers render criticism boring, if not meaningless, but I am wondering, having seen Julie & Julia, if I might not some day suddenly really like this film. Or something. Because my reaction to it was so thoroughly Eh (on the calibrated Ew/Meh/Eh/Yeah/Ooo! movie scale) that I was a little thrown and still don't really know if I can trust it. It's not due to a lack of interest in the subject matter--rather the opposite--which is why I expected to have a stronger reaction, of any kind, but the movie felt rather like the proverbial pablum of reviews. The things I didn't like about it were offset by its competency, but the overall effect was still eh. Not awful,

To wit: The day I went to see this I was in the mood to cry at a movie. It takes very little for me to do so--I can cry during previews. It wasn't that I was particularly sad or upset; sometimes you just rely on a movie to act as a drawing agent or poultice and release whatever feelings are bouncing against the surface. It feels good. However, nothing in this movie made me want to cry or even well up with tears against my will, which seems significant.

Some thoughts:

* Stated, Not Shown is bad, but Stated and Shown = worse. The movie felt like sort of a Julia Child primer, which is fine, but many themes felt overemphasized, then shown, then described and commented on again (usually by Julie P). The easiest and worst example would probably be the last line--"I love you, Julia"--uttered by Julie at Julia's kitchen in the Smithsonian. (Really? She loves her? No way, never woulda guessed that from the title.) Or Child's height: this was an extremely significant thing to know about her, but it's approached from what feels like an outsider point of view (for instance, the way her sister talks about it) and pushed over and over. Or the dinner party where the Childs talk about meeting in was rather like a narrative piece of fiction at times, rather than first-person talk. I don't know, maybe being familiar with the basic facts of Child's life didn't make me a target for this film (i.e., I'm being a snob), but surely that shouldn't have made it as uninteresting as it felt?

* Nora Ephron has a lot of food knowledge, but I felt like she pushed it aside for this film, as she did Child's and Powell's. There is a lot of food appreciation, but the food interaction was kind of sketchy, despite the beautiful visuals. If the power in Powell's story lies in the real cooking journey she was on, then I wanted to see it: how did she really bone the duck (not make just the first cut); what was it really like to have to shop/cook so many dishes; what did she have to make over and over. What the movie shows you are a lot of little ends of food arcs: she (or Child) has just finished making this something or other, and here's what happens. There is a sort of bland sitcom feel to the structure. No tooth to it. I think that might have something to do with how much the film was trying to cover, but it's also a decision about how Ephron is choosing to interact with her audience.

* This movie polished up to a fine point the problem with a lot of drama these days, which is that the tools of visual storytelling have mostly to do with computers. Somebody types something...looks quizzical...looks hesitant...looks resolved...hits enter...yes! Something's happened! Only it hasn't, really. There is a lot of "She hits ENTER" stage direction in this film. It's boring. There is sooo much footage shot from computer POV of Powell (Amy Adams). Why that was chosen over cooking imagery I don't know except for the fact that I think this film is really about publishing. Not food, not writing: publishing. The strongest points and biggest stories in both Js' lives in this film were about 1) blogging, and 2) Child's eventual publishing of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (last shot of the movie, I think). The blogging part of the story, especially, was spelled out in incredibly unnecessary detail, a conceit that had no real momentum past the two-hour running time.

* I am such an old queen: fairly sure that I clapped my hand to my chest and said "Oooo girl" with a little hiss when I saw Amanda Hesser playing Amanda Hesser in the Amanda Hesser scene. And I was guessing (incorrectly) Frances Sternhagen would play an older Judith Jones, despite having the wrong nose; she has the right WASPy pedigree.

* I could be reading this wrong, but is there not a great deal of Noel Riley Fitch's biography of Child in this movie? Didn't see it credited. Child was the publickest public figure ever, so perhaps it's not the point, but a few times I felt that some of what was being described onscreen had to do with ideas from that book.

* The art direction is pretty great in this film. They obviously got a lot of the details right, and it was weird to see (have to use this word here) iconic Child moments--like their nude bathtub postcard--being recreated real-time. Stanley Tucci is good. His and Streep's scenes feel like they have real traction. I am glad that they didn't make him mousy-bald-short, since Paul Child had a kind of macho feel to his looks. And I'm happy to say that Ephron's over-use of American Songbook standards is easing up. But still. I dunno.

I have a simple test for whether or not I liked a film: does it wax or wane? After, I mean. Am I thinking about it still, or forgetting it. Are some of the seeds it planted sprouting, or is the ground fallow. This one...a waner. So far.

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