Julie and Julia as indictment of 21st century life

I finally got around to watching Julie and Julia.  Thought it was a strangely bifurcated movie.  Meryl Streep was fabulous, Stanley Tucci excellent too, and the whole Julia Child narrative very enjoyable overall.  Amy Adams on the other hand was irritating and off-putting, the character Julie a narcissistic whiner, her husband deeply unappealing.  Was this part of the movie filmed by a different director?

The movie felt to me like a bitter satire on the glib hollowness of contemporary life.

According to the movie, Julia and her husband’s 1950s expatriate experience is characterized by great beauty and charm, human connection, leisurely, unpretentious daily life, pleasure in friends and lovers, laughter, commitment to craft & cultural tradition, rewarding hard work.  And, at a meta-level, by fantastic acting and fine film-making: Paris looks wonderful, Julia Child’s marriage is loving and playful, and Streep a total delight.

21st century Queens/NYC, on the other hand, is sort of a nightmare — of fake friends, narcissism, empty careers, soul-crushing architecture, and irritating, mannered acting.  The Julie character has her contrived obsession with Julia Child, which feels mirrored or multiplied by Amy Adams’ over-perky portrayal of the character.  I just found it depressing.  It’s a totally unfair comparison, of course, apples and oranges: on the one hand, a major figure of 20th century American and international life; on the other, this self-involved would-be writer in Queens trying to promote her blog.

It feels so… sad, is if this is the choice (not that we have a choice):

Vibrant creativity, pleasure, friendship, beauty and sensual delight, immersion in complex and sustaining cultural traditions, passionate work performed for its own sake, and brilliant originality (Julia/ mid-century) vs.

Blogging and self-promotion — life lived as a PR stunt — in an apartment above a pizzeria in Queens (Julie/ contemporary life).  Julie can be read as a figure for post-9/11 NYC and America: surrounded by reminders of the trauma (she works for the city taking calls from 9/11 victims) and doing anything she can to forget, to sublimate or repress, to withdraw into manic private activities and little projects of self-making.  (At the risk of being humorless about it, there’s something off-putting about the way Julie completely tunes out the voices of the 9/11 victims in order to submerge herself completely in her foodie-Francophile fantasy.)

I liked that the movie admitted that Julia Child herself hated Julie’s blog.  This felt surprisingly honest because it works against the broader parallel the movie tries to put in place — with Julie getting her book contract for her blog (ludicrously) posited as equivalent to Julia’s publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  I wonder if this was contractual — if Julia or her people would only allow the film to go forward with this proviso of Julia’s disapproval?

The meaning of a “book” seems so different in the two contexts.  For both Julia and Julie, the book contract is a personal fulfillment, a career goal, and a vindication.  For Julia, though, the book is a summing up of an extended immersion into rich cultural traditions; an expression of her own love of food and French culture; a pedagogical tool to teach others to learn the same pleasures.  For Julie, the book is a media event — the key moment is when she gets a write-up by Amanda Hesser in the Dining section of the New York Times and the agents start calling.

From “Julia” to “Julie“: the supplemental “e” trivializes, empties out substance, so food becomes the plaything of “foodies.”

Maybe the movie is actually deeply clever and sly?   All this is intentional, and the movie is itself about the ways culture and creativity have now been reduced to shameless plagiarism of the past and narcissistic PR projects in personal branding.

p.s.  Sarah once sat next to Julia Child at a hair salon in Cambridge; Julia complimented her hair.

p.p.s.  Since I’m (partially) knocking Nora Ephron’s movie, I’ll also mention that I thought her recent Girl with the Dragon Tattoo parody in the New Yorker was hilarious.

p.p.s. Thinking more about it, I’m probably too hard on Amy Adams above; she probably did about as well as she could with this material & character.

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9 Responses

  1. I worked with the real Julie for a time at LMDC. She was my boss’s assistant. Great observations here, Ivan.

  2. Ha! Will be curious to hear more details…

  3. To be fair, Julia Child was independently wealthy, and even without her husband’s income would have been able to pursue “human connection, leisurely, unpretentious daily life, pleasure in friends and lovers, laughter, commitment to craft & cultural tradition, rewarding hard work.” The fascination of the movie is watching an alternately bland and spastic Amy Adams try to pursue the same the only way she can afford to — by performing it on the internet for money.

  4. Midwest Mind: excellent point. I should have emphasized that the movie’s vision of Julia Child’s life definitely reads as a kind of fantasy of an earlier generation’s luxury … Of course in the 1950s there were struggling, unsatisfied secretaries in NYC too like Julie Powell… OTOH one could in fact live in Europe in the 1950s without GREAT wealth; there were semi-bohemian possibilities that have since closed down.

  5. I agree with your review. I found the Amy Adams character really annoying. . . the perky/neurotic combo is becoming something of a specialty for Adams. I kept thinking, “I don’t want to know this woman, much less watch her on screen!” And I thought a conventional bio-pic of Julia would have been much more enjoyable and was sorry whenever they cut away from her story.

  6. Ha. We just watched this, and I couldn’t agree more. I also couldn’t get past everything looking like a set. I bought in to it for Paris and Germany – it is our nostalgic look at the past after all, who cares if it has a fake patina? But Amy Adams’ apartment was like I was watching an episode of Friends (an episode when they get evicted and have to move in to a “dump” in the “bad” part of town). And her husband was so incredibly unappealing. It’s a no-win situation really, though. How do you make a year of writing a blog in Queens and struggling with sauces seem equal to the experience of living in Paris and cultivating an interest over the course of years and the long road to getting a seemingly unpublishable book published?

    You know, with the apartment, since apartments like that actually don’t exist in any borough anymore… they should have had it be a boring, crappily renovated, sheet-rocked white box with ugly cheap home depot cabinets and ugly fake wood floors. Then I would have felt a little sympathy for her struggling to be creative in such a flavorless box.

  7. I may be one of the few people in the world who actually read the book Julie/Julia (compiled from the blog, mostly). Before I saw the movie. And I agree with you about the movie, Ivan. The book of course has very little in it about Julia Child, much much higher percentage Julie. (It does include the bit about Julie finding out that Julia hates her blog). Which is why I had no interest in seeing the movie, until I heard how great Streep was as Child. To me the bottom line is that Child’s story and personality are both just so great. Julie’s story is mildly interesting but her personality is annoying and shallow, and the movie wasn’t trying to make it otherwise, I don’t think.

  8. I thought the same: bitter satire. That Nora Ephron hated Julie/the Julie character, and contrived that negative portrayal on purpose, and that the bifurcation/gulf was intended. I liked the movie more for that, though it made for unpleasant watching. It was like a satire of the *ends* of the kinds of things that people consider hard work now etc.—all wrapped in exact Hollywood formule.

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