Saturday, August 29, 2009

In defense of Julie

Quite a few people I know detested the "Julie" half of Julie & Julia. I saw the movie yesterday afternoon, and I have to wonder why the parts of the film set in 2002, in the Queens apartment of an appealing young couple, have attracted such raw hatred from so many. A fair portion of the haters' ire has settled on the character of Julie Powell, who is described as self-absorbed, irritating, and utterly unlikable. Some folks have floated the idea that putting Amy Adams, who plays Powell, up against Meryl Streep as Julia Child made for an unfair fight. But Adams has plenty of acting chops, as she demonstrated in her Oscar-nominated performance in Junebug, so that's not the problem. Perhaps, as Michael suggested, the movie's version of Powell is written as such an annoying brat that Adams can't do anything but channel pure brattiness?

I'd argue that Julie Powell is one of Nora Ephron's realest characters in a good long while. When Harry Met Sally..., the 1989 romantic comedy that Ephron wrote but didn't direct, presented two very human people: Harry, who acted like a bit of a jerk sometimes but could never completely conceal his soft heart; and Sally, whose neurotic restaurant ordering and insistence on organization ran the very definite risk of annoying even the most sentimental viewer. Actually, the movie introduced us to two more people who were extremely real and flawed: the smug marrieds, played by Carrie Fisher and the late Bruno Kirby, who lay in bed thanking their lucky stars that they'd never have to date again. (Is that what marriage is for? The film dramatizes our desperate desire to escape the horrors of dating more nimbly than most others I've seen.)

The lovers-to-be in Sleepless in Seattle were less messed up, and those in You've Got Mail led charmed enough lives to be entirely less relatable. Julie Powell is selfish sometimes, isn't as committed as she should be to her job at a call center for family members of 9/11 victims, and occasionally throws a hissy fit that she herself recognizes as small-child behavior. Yet her husband, Eric (the always wonderful Chris Messina), loves her, presumably because she's quirky and has a restless mind and a big heart. When she presents him and a table full of friends with her latest creation from Child's epic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking, you can see why he sticks with her through the tantrums and self-absorption.

Julie is a free spirit in a modest apartment that feels to her like a cage, and her repeated insistence that she's not a writer because she hasn't been published is something that rings too true for all of us writers who have been published but still have trouble seeing ourselves as writers. What Julie endures in the film is a quarterlife crisis, and while it isn't always pretty to watch, it was never less than interesting for me, because I'm just now trying to come out the other end of my own. (One assumes that the publication of Powell's blog-turned-book, in which she wrote about preparing French Cooking's 524 recipes in a year, has gone a long way toward resolving her angst about turning 30 with little to show for it.)

Watching the Julia scenes is a joy because a Streep performance is nearly always a joy. She elevates the material in a way that recalls her work in The Devil Wears Prada, which wouldn't have been a quarter as good without her contribution. (Stanley Tucci, as Julia's husband, Paul, is also a pleasure to watch, as always.) But we already know the story of the first real celebrity chef, who introduced ordinary Americans to a marvelous new way of cooking. Powell's story looked messier on the screen -- literally, in certain cases, when a dish didn't turn out as planned -- but was easier for me to connect with.

A fellow Kibbutznik who saw the movie complained that when Powell's husband temporarily leaves her, it's unclear why, and that it's equally unclear what his motives are for returning. Nothing could be further from the truth. Powell begins to overfocus on her blog project halfway through the film, and her husband needs space; she's turning into Cookzilla, and he wants a break from the drama. He comes back because he reads her indirect apology to him on her blog, which goes to show that emotional wrecks can sometimes pick themselves up and act like reasonably normal humans via the power of writing, a phenomenon to which I can also relate.

I suspect that I liked Powell's character more than some of my peers because I'm more self-absorbed than some of them, and thus more like her. I also wonder whether the bloggers and oddballs among her critics took out the sharp knives because they saw too much of themselves, and their own Internet solipsism, in Julie. Whatever the case may be, Julie & Julia is a small gem of satisfying light comedy, and I recommend it -- especially to those who've recently seen The Hurt Locker and need a counterbalance.

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