Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

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Last night I finally got to see Julie and Julia, the much-talked-about movie based on the books Julia and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously and My Life In France. Julia and Julia is a blog-turned-into-book that recounts how Julie Powell, an office cubicle worker who hates her job and is having an identity crisis, cooks her way through Julia Child’s first masterpiece Mastering The Art Of French Cooking (Volume 1) as a project to bring meaning to her life. My Life In France is the autobiography of Julia Child, a legendary American cookbook author and TV chef. I thought I would put in both descriptions here, since contrary to what American may think, Julia Child is not universally known. In fact, as Anna Picard wrote on The Guardian’s World of Mouth blog, internet savvy non-USens are more likely to know about Julie Powell, Famous Blogger Who Became Bestselling Author, rather than Julia Child, an odd-looking woman who had some cooking gig on the telly years ago.

I pondered these things as made our way to a movie theater in Lyon, France, for a pre-premiere, or sneak preview (the movie officially opens here in France on the 16th). Julia Child may be credited with introducing fine French cooking techniques to American housewives, but she is not a household name in the country that inspired her by any means, even if she did receive a Legion d’Honneur from the French government. I was even wondering if anyone else besides us would be there for the show. As it happens, the theatre (one of the smaller ones at the multiplex) was about 80% full, and as far as I could eavesdrop on, mostly by French people, not expats like me.

Perhaps because I viewed the movie in a place where Julia Child is not a culinary diety and pop-culture icon, I was able to watch the movie in a different way I think than most Americans. I think that this really is a movie about Julie, not Julia. The Julia parts are there to enlighten us about this legendary Julia figure, and why someone would give up a year of her life, more or less, to immersing herself in the Cult of Julia. Parallels are drawn between the lives of the two women, to be sure, but I think they are there to give weight and credence to Julie’s experience.

Like most people who have written about this movie, I did yearn for more Julia, a whole movie about Julia. The scenes of France and Paris in the late ’40s onwards are gorgeous, and the acting of Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, and everyone else in the Julia segments are just wonderful. I wonder if there is enough footage there to cobble together an only-Julia Director’s Cut version (I doubt it, but it would be nice). But that’s another movie entirely. In this movie, Julia is perfect because she’s a mythical figure. She’s the Julia that Julie worships and idolizes, and the Julia that is actually a reality in Julie’s world, the one who tells a reporter that she dislikes whatever it is that Julie is doing (though it’s not specified in the movie or in reports about the real-life incident exactly what she objected to) is not really the same person.

Compared to the perfect Julia, Julie is going to come off worse by default. How can a depressed almost-30something woman stuck in a boring job, living somewhere she can’t stand, compete with a woman who seems to be on an extended honeymoon in a dreamlike city? More to the point, she’s just a blogger. If you have been blogging for any length of time, you may know by now that the world at large, the part that only use the internets for email and looking at cute cat pictures, not to mention more than a few “professional” journalists and writers, tend to sneer at bloggers. They regard them - us - as self-centered twits who gaze too intently at our navels, then have the nerve to expose our navel lint to the general public. Amy Adams made her about as appealing as possible probably, but she had an impossible task to begin with.

Nevertheless, Julie is the one who most people are closer to in reality. We can dream about and aspire to becoming like Julia. But when we blog, in some way we are being Julie; using our writing to express ourselves, as an outlet for our thoughts or our stunted creativity, to find an audience out there who just might appreciate us. There are thousands, if not millions, of Julies out there. I’m one of them.

When I started Just Hungry in late 2003, I was at a pretty low point mentally. I had recently finished writing a book about web tech things, which ended up being something very different from what I set it out to be. I had a personal blog already, but somehow could not get myself out of the rut of writing about web-design this or CSS-that. Not that there is anything wrong with those subjects, but I felt like writing for my blog was like taking a busman’s holiday - I could never get away from the day job. So I started a little blog about one of my lifelong obsessions, food. My blog did not grow as fast as it should have perhaps - I was very unfocused, and I even stopped blogging for no good reason during 2004. And my writing at the start was pretty blah. (Derail: I got a chuckle out of this post on Tigers and Strawberries that I stumbled on when I was looking up links for this article. Apparently, my blog “iwasjustreallyveryhungry.com” (which was never the actual URL, though my blog’s name used to be I Was Just Really Very Hungry) was dissed by a food anthology editor way back then.) Still, it brought a different kind of focus to my life.

I almost clapped my hands at the little things in the movie that only a blogger could appreciate - when Julie gets her first comment; when her husband tells her she has the no. 3 blog on Salon.com. (I never got hot sauce in the mail from a reader though. That part is sort of zeitgeist I guess. If it really happened, it was ok in 2003 perhaps, but 2009, I think we are wary of random strangers knowing our real addresses, let alone sending us food in the mail!) I’ve had those little “You Like Me, You Really Like Me!” moments too - when Just Hungry was a Featured Blog on Typepad, its original home; when I got my first email from a mainstream media reporter asking for an interview; when I got a heartfelt email from someone saying how my bento recipes were being used as inspiration by a group of women with eating disorders, to get them back into eating small portions of real food. Being quoted several times over in a feature article in the New York Times this week was another highlight. And if getting a book contract is supposed to be the measure of a blogger’s success, I have one actually, and am in the throes of working frantically on the first draft. (Details to come.)

I can also relate very well to the struggle of trying to cook in an inadequate kitchen. I’ve been doing that for most of this year, as we move around from holiday home to holiday home, waiting for the Final Word to come on whether we can purchase the house we want or not. (I’ve been technically homeless since March. It’s really getting old.) The desire to cook something delicious that uplifts the soul and fills the belly can overcome a tiny two-burner stove that slopes towards the center so that you can only cook in a pan straddling the two burners, and the limitations of a kitchen sink placed at such an odd angle that you bang your head on a hard corner cupboard every time you try to rinse some vegetables.

So despite her foibles and the comparative smallness of her vision, I loved the Julie parts as much as I loved the larger-than-life portrayal of the larger-than-life Julia Child.

One other thing: I think that this is a movie about writing, as much as it is about food. It’s about the power of writing to inspire and change lives. Julia’s life is transformed first by falling in love with French food, but it’s really changed by her book. Julie’s life is changed mostly by her blog, and her book - the cooking thing was mostly a hook to hang her writer’s hat onto.

In any case, I think that Julie and Julia is a wonderful movie, that should be appreciated on its own merit, rather than trying to twist it into something that it is not.

Notes

  • Julia Child. I didn’t want to interject my own feelings about the real-life people involved in the movie in the above review. I really wanted to see the characters just as they are portrayed in the movie, and I think I succeeded. I do happen to love the real Julia Child - she’s one of my major inspirations, and she wrote my favorite English-language cookbook of all time. I have My Life In France in three formats - as a hardcover, as an audiobook, and as an ebook. I re-read it all the time. If you have not read it yet, please, go and get it!
  • Julie Powell. On the other hand, I was never a fan of Julie Powell the blogger and writer. I read her blog quite some time after she stopped updating it - as a matter of fact, I only found it when Julia Child passed away. I was looking around to see what other people’s reactions were, and I found her heartfelt post about it. I then started going back through her Julie/Julia blog, but stopped after a few entries - it was just so, I don’t know, messy. Maybe I shouldn’t have - maybe her writing improved too with practice, as I like to think mine has. But anyway, for this reason I was very surprised by how much I liked the Julie in the movie, and I am tempted to buy the book after all.

    What’s holding me back is the real Julie Powell’s annoying post-movie comments that have appeared all over the place about how the movie Julie is different from her, please don’t hate her because of that Julie, et al. Ugh, please shut up about that. Also, I can’t get away from the niggling feeling that any theme would have done as a hook to get herself a writing project. It could have been ‘build 365 Lego projects in a year’ or ‘knit 52 hats in a year’ or something. For Julie Powell I really think it was the writing first, food/cooking second. Which may explain why she doesn’t seem to think of herself as a food blogger and distances herself from food bloggers, unless it’s convenient for her to do otherwise. But as she likes to repeat, the movie Julie is not the same as the real-life Julie Powell, and I do like the movie Julie a lot.
  • Nora Ephron. The director Nora Ephron used to be a writer/journalist (interestingly she lists her books before her movies in her Huffington Post bio). She has written a lot about food - for example Scribble Scribble (out of print but you can find it used), which is a collection of essays she wrote for Esquire Magazine about the media, she has a very funny critique of Bon Appetit magazine, and ends another essay about the New York Post with her recipe for borscht, which is really quite good. And her autobiographical novel Heartburn (which was turned into a movie starring - Meryl Streep!) is peppered with some great comfort food recipes. I try to avoid reading it when I’m hungry, otherwise before I know it I’m in the kitchen toasting some almonds in butter or whipping up a bowl of mashed potatoes or something. So this script really was a good fit for her, and I think it shows - it’s the best movie she’s made in my opinion, right up there with When Harry Met Sally.
  • Julia Child’s impact on American women. The best account I’ve read of the huge impact Julia Child and Mastering The Art Of French Cooking had on a generation of American women, appears in a wonderful book called Feast Here Awhile by Jo Brans, who is listed on the dust jacket as a journalist and writer. It’s out of print, but you can get it used for a bargain price. If you’re interested in what impact certain chefs, cookbooks and so on had on American society from the late ’50s up to the early ’90s, this is a must read. I wish there were more books like this out there. What would be cool is if the writers of Mad Men managed to get a reference to Mastering in there somewhere - maybe have Betty Draper discover an outlet for her ongoing frustration? Well, maybe not…she may gain weight or something.
  • Julia and France. In the movie, Julia is portrayed as being enamored of Paris, and only Paris, when it comes to France. But in the book she fell in love with Marseille and adored the food of Provence. Later in her life she and Paul built a house called La Pitchoune in Provence, on land owned by Simone (Simca) Beck, where they and many of their friends (among them James Beard) spent a lot of time. (The house is now a cooking school for well-heeled tourists.) I guess this put-down of Marseille was done for the sake of expediency, but it reinforced, yet again, that notion held by so many Americans and others that Paris=France=Paris and there’s nothing else. (Admittedly, a lot of Parisiens think like that too.) As someone who has fallen in love with this corner of France, it does grate on me. But hey, there are enough tourists here from the Netherlands and Belgium and Germany and the UK here in the summer so, maybe it’s a good thing there aren’t more Americans! Also note that she falls in love for the first time with French cooking at the restaurant La Couronne in Rouen, in Normandy, not in Paris. She was also quite fond of the last place her husband was posted to before they returned to the U.S., Oslo. (On the other hand, Julia really did hate Bonn and Germany it seems…or at least the American expat community there.) Anyway, if you wonder whether really friendly market vendors like those that Julia interacted with still exist in France, yes they do - in the provinces mostly, but even in Paris - but you need to become a regular, and speaking a bit of French and above all, being friendly yourself does help. (My mother does not speak a word of French but manages to charm market vendors everywhere by her sheer enthusiasm.)
  • Queens. Just in case you get the impression that the NYC borough of Queens is a food desert, Robyn will disabuse you of such nonsense. I lived for a year in Flushing, and while I hated my apartment (it had mice and a horrible neighbor) and the long commute to work, I loved the neighborhood for its wide variety of delicious food. It’s still a must-stop for me when I’m back in New York, for dim sum, Korean barbeque and more.
  • Watching Julie and Julia with a French audience. It was a lot of fun. They laughed heartily at Julia, and gasped audibly at the gorgeous food porn, starting with that sole meunière in Rouen. They laughed the loudest when Meryl Streep/Julia uttered a throwaway phrase or word in French in that sing-song voice.
  • Sole meunière in the movies, again. Sole meunière also features prominently in the movie that is still my favorite food-theme movie, Tampopo.
  • Other interesting food personalities to make movies about. Perhaps another Julia Child movie will not be made soon, but how about James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Escoffier, Elizabeth David (ok a TV movie of sorts was made about her)? All larger than life fascinating characters. An M.F.K. Fisher movie could be really interesting - that lady had a very complicated life, to say the least. And she was beautiful too.
  • Bloggers liking Julie. Finally, a couple of prominent non-food bloggers had a similar take on the Julie part of Julie and Julia: Matt Haughey, who relates his early experiences with Metafilter, and Tom and Lorenzo of the site formerly known as Project Rungay.
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Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

I think I would have preferred a biopic of Julia Child's life. I didn't really find the Julie bits compelling, I kept waiting for Julia, since I found her story to be much more interesting. I recommend Appetite for Life: A Biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch. I really enjoyed it. Learning about her early life in California and her Smith education gave more context to her television persona. I had known nothing about Paul Child, and it turns out he was much more interesting than the movie Paul.

tami | 12 September, 2009 - 16:25

Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

Haven't seen the movie yet but really enjoyed reading your overly long review! (no spoilers, thanks!)
Can't wait to check it out for myself now.
PS: Yes, there was a tv movie about Elisabeth Davies made for British television, it was very good but I would stil enjoy watching a film about her on the big screen...

Liana | 12 September, 2009 - 16:45

Food and Blogging

It's funny how different people get into cooking. I took a home econ course in high school, but I never enjoyed cooking until this summer while I was waiting for my college acceptance letter. I thought I would go crazy waiting for it, so I looked for a productive hobby (and that was cooking!).

My younger sister is headed off to Culinary Arts school next fall. Even though we are headed in different directions, we share a bond through food.

I live in America, but I had never heard of Julia Child until this past year. It was exciting to get to see a replica of her kitchen in the Smithsonian (which was an delightful surprise during my visit to D.C.) Your review has made me excited to see the movie!

Jessica | 12 September, 2009 - 17:40

Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

I loved the Julia part of J&J. And even tho DH and I had eaten dinner before the movie, we had to rush home and try to find something French to eat! We settled on an assortment of wonderful cheeses, fruit, and of course, red wine. Alas, no boulangerie was open at 10:30 p.m., so we missed that special crunch of a baguette. :-(

A few days later I received a Birthday Kindle and purchased my first ebook -- My Life in France. It literally makes me grin. Now if only Mastering the Art of French Cooking would show up in the Kindle Store I would be in heaven.

Folly | 12 September, 2009 - 18:16

Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

I recommend not buying the book. I read it when it first came out and I was angry. She seemed to resent everything, including a husband who she portrayed as supportive and lovely, and came across as a selfish, self-indulgent, and even mean, twit. I was reluctant to see the movie because I had such a bad taste in my mouth about the book (pun sadly intended!) but I caved and I loved it! The movie Julie is leaps and bounds better, and the movie tells the story so much better, even if that is accounted for by my being totally taking in by the romance of the Julia parts!

Melissa | 12 September, 2009 - 22:16

Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

This was a great review/post/essay on the subject of my favorite movie of the year.

I really liked it, too. Having seen it a second time, I have to say that the Julie parts grew on me, but I have to admit that I prefer the character in the film to the real, live Julie Powell. She is much more likable as written by Nora Ephron than as she portrays herself.

That said, I think that an actual biopic treatment of My Life in France would rock. There is so much great stuff in the book that of course, did not make it into the film. I'd love to see more of France through Julia's eyes, not only in print, but on the screen.

Barbara Fisher | 12 September, 2009 - 22:44

Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

Wow, this is a mega post! Thank you for putting time and energy into writing this. I haven't seen the movie, but my husband gave me the book for my birthday, and I loved it. The Julie in the book is snarky and real, which was part of the book's charm to me. She has a strong voice and persona. Her friend characters are hilarious. As you noticed in the movie, Julia Child the person is not really part of the book, more like a memory or echo. In the movie, I imagine they really had to highlight the Julia moments in much more emphatic ways than in the book.

Congrats on your own blogging experience and your book deal! I live in Japan for a couple years, so I appreciate your point of view. It connects me to that part of my life so long ago.

Ninette | 13 September, 2009 - 16:08

Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

I was wondering if and when you had seen this movie. I saw it twice just by happenstance, and had some similar feelings about it.
The first time, my youngest daughter (16) and I went to see it and, silly us!, forgot to eat lunch first! Big mistake! If anyone reading this hasn't seen it yet, please, please, eat first!!

Food porn is sooo right on. We both were groaning when the absolutely delirious looking food appeared on screen! Plus it's a long movie too, two hours. We too went to the closest French restaurant right afterward!

The second time I had time to study it more closely, plus I had eaten first. I loved the parts about Julia Child. She is and was a big influence on my interest in cooking and food.

I grew up at an all time low in American cooking. Mass produced processed food was taking over the grocery store in the mid-sixties and the chain grocery itself had toppled the mom&pop specialty stores of the butcher or the green grocer, etc. I never tasted fresh green beans or real mashed potatoes except at Christmas dinner.

But here was a rather ordinary looking lady on TV who claimed there was a better way. You could make real food, French(!) food at home and it wasn't as hard as you thought!
My poor picky-eater Mother who worked as an elementary teacher, never had the interest or time to teach me cooking, so I soaked up everything I could about it from Julia.
There was nothing intimidating about how she went about cooking, always going on about how if she could do it, so could you! She made mistakes in the kitchen and just laughed it off and made a lesson from them, don't worry, you can fix almost anything!!

I find it so interesting that she's apparently such and American phenomenon, since her show's are so ingrained in our modern culture. Or at least they were, as I find now the younger generation has missed out on such a charming lady.
I'm really grateful that the movie may spur some on to do some research on Julia Child.

Interesting observation about the Paris thing, I didn't have a really great restaurant meal when I was in Paris, because I was so poor then and they were all so very expensive when I went. But the delicatessens and the patisseries were wonderful!! And the two best French restaurant meals I ever had were a family style one in the Lyon countryside and a fancy one in Brussels, so go figure! lol.

The Julie part I found rather annoying the first time around. She did seem to whine quite a lot, though she did have some good reasons too. What an awful job!!
And I guess it's not unreasonable to think that she may have started the blog about any subject, as she was a writer to start out with.
But the second time around I enjoyed her part more than before. I really did feel a bit bad for her when her idol seemed to have clay feet. But it's true, she was writing about her "Julia", not the flesh and blood one. And I appreciated the journey of self discovery more the second time too.
All in all I really enjoyed the movie and your review was spot on I would say.

BarbJ | 14 September, 2009 - 07:30

Re: Julie and Julia: An overly long and very late review

I am an American that has lived in the UK for well over a decade now. The film has only just come out there and I do want to see it but since very few people over here have heard of Julia Child they aren't actually pushing the promotion of it that much. I am trying to get some girlfriends to go with me but hard to sell them on a funny talking chef they hadn't heard of before I mentioned it.

Weekend Carnivore | 18 September, 2009 - 18:41

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