America is obsessed with food. In the past couple of years, Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” topped the New York Times Non-Fiction Best Seller List for six weeks; Wal-Mart started selling organic milk; Robert Kenner’s documentary “Food, Inc.” revealed the horrors of large-scale agricultural food production in the U.S.; and Michelle Obama planted a vegetable garden at the White House.
In “Julie & Julia,” however, the guilt that often accompanies eating is left by the wayside. The main characters aren’t locavores, flexitarians, pescetarians, or ovo-lacto-vegetarians. Instead, director Nora Ephron presents cooking and food as enjoyable—inducing pleasure rather than peccability.
The film chronicles two women’s journeys of self-discovery: a bored housewife, Julia Child (Meryl Streep), gleefully bests male chefs at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and writes the revolutionary “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” while Julie Powell (Amy Adams), frustrated with her dead-end cubicle job and nursing an ambition to become a writer, cooks—and blogs—her way through all of Child’s recipes 50 years later.
The two storylines are parallel but totally separate, and Child’s carries the film. In the 1960s, Child was a beacon of hope for housewives who watched her TV show, “The French Chef,” and read her book. She made haute cuisine accessible, encouraging women to deviate beyond Jell-O molds and to risk failure in order to achieve culinary—and personal—triumphs. Child is earnest and fearless, but also human; we see her emotional suffering after failing to conceive with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci). The two share a passionate relationship, and the viewer inevitably falls in love with the 6’2” powerhouse as well as her understanding partner.
Powell, however, does not inspire her online readers; instead she feeds her self-pity with their attention.
“It’s like a thousand people have this... this connection with me. If I didn’t write every day, they would be so disappointed,” she whines to her husband.
“They would live,” he answers with thinly veiled frustration.
“It would really upset them,” she counters. “They depend on me.”
After graduating from Amherst, where she was the editor-in-chief of the literary magazine, Powell self-indulgently undergoes a turning-30 crisis. Ephron cuts Adams’ signature long auburn hair into an unattractive shag-mullet-bob hybrid and dresses her in the 20-something’s uniform of Anthropologie skirts, ripped Levi’s, and slip-on Vans in an attempt to make her post-graduation crisis seem relevant.
The result is a character that might be relatable but certainly isn’t likeable. She complains to her patient husband about hating their apartment, her job, and even her friends. After he encourages her to start the blog, she complains about that, too.
Ephron’s intentions are clear, especially because Powell melodramatically narrates them out loud; “I was drowning, and [Julia] pulled me out of the water.” One female’s self-empowerment facilitated another’s. Through the intertwined non-relationship Ephron revisits and successfully renews America’s passion for Julia Child and for the shameless love of eating. Streep single-handedly elevates the film from clunky to thoughtful and refined—just like Julia’s boeuf bourginon.