Thursday, August 27, 2009

Julie and Julia Off-balanced

Property of The Daily Gamecock

Director Nora Ephron has a reputable track record for bankable romances, making a name for herself in the 1990s with commercial hits like "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail." Her latest, "Julie and Julia," is not necessarily about a relationship between two people - in fact, its titular leads do not share a single frame together.

Rather, it is about an insatiable love of food, and how cooking can soothe troubled souls. Half period bio-pic and half contemporary memoir about coping after 9/11, the film intercuts the rise of chef personality Julia Child (Meryl Streep) in post-WWII France, culminating in the publishing of her landmark cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," with the true story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a low-level government employee who decides to dedicate a blog to the trials and tribulations of cooking her way through Child's 500-plus recipe cookbook in less than a year.

The film is adopted from memoirs by both Child and Powell, taking its title from the latter's book. It's admittedly hard to watch "Julie and Julia" on an empty stomach, for it sheds such savory light on culinary prowess, always basking its range of dishes in the warmest light. However, the film is nearly undone by inherent flaws in its own premise.

"Julie and Julia" is really two films in one, and as such it draws meaning from the connections between the two stories. Undoubtedly, there are some interesting circumstantial and structural similarities, which Julie explicitly describes more than once in the narrative.

Deeper connections between the two diverse women and periods remain tenuous and poorly executed. Child's success reverberates with its tangible cultural significance, while the stakes of Powell's blog hardly seem revolutionary; if anything, it merely expresses the diverse means of expression through 21st century media. As a whole, the film is thus unevenly packaged, with the period half dominating almost every aspect of the production.

While much of the blame for this comes from flaws in the script's structure, the centerpiece of the film is always Meryl Streep, even when she's not on screen. With a high-pitched elongation of her vowels accompanied by an awkward slant to her posture, Streep certainly plays the part of Julia Child. She embeds in her features a palpable exuberance that seems to wrap itself around the edges of the screen.

A master of mimicry and nuance, Streep submerges into her makeup with devastating perfection, making her enactment of Child a stunning combination of the woman's desires and seemingly innocent joys.

Poor Amy Adams has a hard time competing with Streep, even without sharing screen time with her. Not that she's to blame - she certainly gives Julie plenty of spunk, determination and accessibility - but it's the screenplay that mishandles her, continually falling back on the typical motions of light romantic comedies too often for comfort.

The film's most satisfying costumes, lighting and set design are all found in the Child half of the film, as if director Ephron were herself brought alive by Julia. When she's not on screen, the film loses its spark and feels markedly unengaging.

"Julie and Julia" still goes down smooth, but it never quite feels like a satisfying three-course meal. The ingredients - as rich as some may be - never cohere.

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