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Wednesday, August 12, 2009

For One Critic, Watching 'Julie & Julia' Launches an Intensely Personal Journey

Posted By on Wed, Aug 12, 2009 at 12:59 PM

click to enlarge Flipping for Julia: Streep as the French food maven at the Cordon Bleu in Paris. - SONY PICTURES
  • Sony Pictures
  • Flipping for Julia: Streep as the French food maven at the Cordon Bleu in Paris.
I was thrilled when I arrived at the Century last Friday, opening day of Julia & Julia, to see a long line outside the theater. San Francisco foodies, represent! Except when I found out they were waiting for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. I meekly took my ticket and walked in.

My excitement wasn't just generalized food-film lust. Sure, I like writer-director Nora Ephron and Julie Powell, whose book inspired the film. And, like them, I'd learned to cook French from Mastering the Art, Julia Child's seminal work whose birth the film chronicles. It was probably the first cookbook I ever bought, and the stained volume moved everywhere with me over the years.

I was also an early enthusiast of Julie Powell's blog The Julie/Julia Project (also chronicled in J & J). I found myself caught up in Powell's quest to cook the entire roster of recipes from Mastering in a year, feeling bereft when she skipped a day. I enjoyed the 2005 book drawn from it -- Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen -- though I thought it lost a lot of charm in translation. I urged people to go back to her blog to get the true flavor of Powell's writing.

Even before the film began, I knew I had personal connections to it. But until I watched it, I had no idea just how many.

click to enlarge Adams as Julie Powell: Authentic charm. - SONY PICTURES
  • Sony Pictures
  • Adams as Julie Powell: Authentic charm.
The legend of Julia Child was far more instrumental for me than even I realized. After moving to Paris, a college student thinking I'd be studying literature and film, I ended up at the Cordon Bleu, just like Julia (though by then it was in a different location). Julia's chef, Max Bugnard, was long gone, though his image lived on in photographs lining the halls. But the cruel Madame Brassart still owned the school, a distant, ceremonial presence. It was a school legend that the tiny, carefully dressed and coiffed matriarch sat down to formal, multicourse lunches and dinners, her "grand dejeuner" and "grand diner", daily. (I was surprised to see a casual acquaintance, ex-French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck, play Madame Brassart in the film: when worlds collide!)

And I had interviewed Julie Powell when she was on a book tour, knocking back the same vodka gimlets that gleam from the screen. She won me over with charm, a charm Amy Adams eerily captures.

As expected, Meryl Streep is amazing as Julia. But she isn't my Julia, the horsey, gasping, unfailingly kind woman I'd met many times at events, even shared meals with a couple of times. I was pleased to hear Streep say on a talk show (okay, it was The View) that she gave herself an out. "I said that I am Amy's imaginary Julia Child. I'm not necessarily exact. I'm not doing exactly her," she explained. I agreed, even though Streep pulls off an entirely believable -- and lovable -- Julia. But then, my idealized Julia surprised me in real life, when she let it be known she considered Powell's blog a ride on her coattails, not the sincere homage I thought it was.

When I got home and started reading the reviews, I was surprised at how many critics divided the movie into two neat halves, applauding not only Streep's performance over Adams', but Child's ambitions and accomplishments over Powell's. Our own Robert Wilonsky began with, "It was the best of movies. It was the worst of movies." I'd bought it all: Julia's supportive marriage paired with Julie's, even the oh-so-cute montage with Julia using a hand-cranked Moulinex juxtaposed with Julie's whirring Cuisinart. I'd have to see it again. I wanted to see it again.

When Amy Adams heard that Julie Powell's marriage foundered briefly after her book was published, she was reportedly shocked. "My Julie would not have had an affair," she said. Powell's new book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, to be published in December, chronicles her experiments with infidelity as she learns the art of butchering. I'll be there on opening day.

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Meredith Brody


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