by Chuck Williamson
Since its release, Julie & Julia has attracted the sort of lame critical bon mots one might expect from a food-focused biopic: predictable culinary puns, overreaching food metaphors, a three-course meal of gastronomic groaners. And, to be honest, I doubt I can resist the temptation to do the same. Frivolous to a fault, Julie & Julia is the sort of mediocre, inconsequential product that encourages empty rhetorical embellishment and blurb-friendly summations. In this respect, the food lingo can transform a limp, lifeless cinematic experience into something more robust and palatable for the reader. So let me get this out of the way: Julie & Julia is a low-calorie soufflé, light and enjoyable, but with a soggy, undercooked center that, even with its various herbs and spices, makes for a bland, tasteless meal.
Chief amongst the film’s more egregious failings is the bifurcated structure, a zigzagging and needlessly convoluted attempt to construct a dialogue between its cross-generational narratives. As the film alternates between the stories of famed culinary icon Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and fame-chasing bureaucrat turned blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams), these strained efforts to place the two narratives in concert remain superficial and slight. As boneless and stitched together as the duck en croute featured in the climax, the film’s dialogic structure unravels into a discursive mess, as its various threads fail to connect in a smart, substantive way. At best, the film uses its interlocking narratives in the service of serio-comic juxtaposition, crosscutting either between set-up and punch-line or transgenerational cause and effect. But as the film progresses, the structure becomes more of a gimmick, and the two narratives grow increasingly discordant and incoherent. In the rare instances of interconnection, the structure merely props up winking in-jokes and shallow truisms, cutting back and forth between a string of faux-ironic scenes punctuated with jokey proclamations of self-doubt, period-specific zingers, and scowling caricatures who bark lines like, “You’ll never master the art of French cooking!” Har, har! Little do they know she’ll be a famous chef one day!
Even worse, the structure forces the two narratives into a rigged deathmatch where the more fascinating post-war, proto-feminist permeations of Child’s narrative—further enhanced by the mix of pathos and bathos of Streep’s effective high-camp mimicry—overpowers the froth and narcissism that characterizes many the Powell sequences, where Adams does her best with a narrative that demands little more than spunk and self-indulgence. But, in the end, both stories suffer. Rather than link the two narratives in a way that enhances both, the dual structure shortchanges the audience with an unfinished patchwork of scenes that seem to have been culled from two different movies. Neither narrative works, as the structure merely emphasizes the weaknesses of the Powell sequences while compromising what could have been a relatively well-made, if formulaic, Julia Child biopic.
But enough about the film. How’s the food? Sizzling, scrumptious goodness, shot with the sort of fetishistic detail lacking in the rest of the film. At times, I began to wonder if director Nora Ephron purposefully designed the film as an extended advertisement for the various cookbooks, biographies, and memoirs diligently name-checked throughout the film. With its whitewashed narrative(s) and ineffective dialogic structure, the film works best as an inoffensive diversion that, like the Transformers and GI Joe films, masks its commercial plugs with a glossy, gossamer-thin veneer. If asked what lasting impression the film might have had on me, I would probably respond, “Well, the movie was nice enough—but, boy, am I hungry! Why don’t we swing by Barnes & Noble and pick up a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. For some reason, I’m suddenly in the mood for beef burgundy.”