I’ve seen Julie & Julia, and I’m afraid I can’t agree with Julie Gunlock’s assessment of it. While I’ll spare everyone the bill of particulars, there are a couple of points I’d like to make.
First of all, potential viewers should know that even in this seemingly light and innocuous story, the screenwriter/director, Nora Ephron, can’t resist indulging her political obsessions. In the Julia Child sections, people keep grumbling about Sen. Joe McCarthy, who had either a minuscule effect on Paul Child’s diplomatic career or none at all. A mystifyingly elaborate subplot seems to exist for the sole purpose of mocking Julia’s father — a Republican! (gasp) — who is as harrumphy and reactionary as every conservative in a Hollywood movie. And in one of the present-day scenes, Julie’s boss, completely unprompted, says, “If I were a Republican, I would fire you!” The Upper West Side audience I saw it with ate this stuff up, but if you don’t enjoy having liberal pieties preached at you, you might want to find some other movie to watch.
Politics aside, the best way I can sum up what’s wrong with Julie & Julia is this: It’s a movie where everyone talks with their mouth full. Seriously — in almost every eating scene, someone will take a bite and say, “Mmmnnnngg, nish izh mlllishous,” while they’re chewing the suprême de volaille. Now, in real life, civilized people don’t do that. If you want to say something and your mouth is full, you’ll wait to swallow before you start talking. But not in this movie. The reason, I think, is the same reason why movie characters used to fiddle with cigarettes, before that became unfashionable, or why they pace the floor while delivering a long harangue: It’s a way to perk up a dull scene. In Julie & Julia, instead of having a bunch of polite characters saying, “Exquisite! I particularly like the hint of rosemary in the glaze,” they are so overcome with emotion that they forget their manners and act like five-year-olds, which just goes to show how salt-of-the-earth they are.
Or something. This and the political stuff are symptoms of a larger problem, which is that the movie doesn’t really have a story to tell. You can imagine how the project got approved: Julie’s blog was popular among twentysomethings (though it’s hard to fathom why from the few brief excerpts she reads on screen), and older folks remember Julia Child, and everybody likes food, so it should have universal appeal. The problem is that it’s basically a movie about a cookbook, and every bit as exciting as you’d expect a film on the book-publishing industry to be. See Julia and her editor choose a title! See Julia and her co-author negotiate a lower percentage of the royalties for an unindustrious collaborator! Ephron has written some fine screenplays from scratch, but the need to base this one on real-life events clearly cramped her style.
The film is not awful, by any means. It’s a well-made mainstream Hollywood effort, nicely acted and directed, with every shot exquisitely composed and sumptuously lit, even when it’s Julie’s messy apartment in Queens. The screenplay is competent and efficient in a connect-the-dots sort of way; every scene focuses tightly on the plot point it’s supposed to make or the character trait it’s meant to establish. And the Julia scenes evoke 1950s France quite convincingly. While I found it hard to like any of the characters, perhaps that’s just the harrumphy, reactionary conservative in me. In the end, though, my biggest problem with Julie & Julia is that there’s so little drama in it. Nora Ephron tried to tell two stories at once and ended up telling none.