Usually, when people say that a movie is half-good, they don’t mean it this literally. As every single reviewer of Julie and Julia said in unison, the portions dealing with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) are magically, beautifully, delightfully good. Better than a movie about someone writing a cookbook has any right to be. The other half of the movie, dealing with a blogger named Julie Powell in 2002 (Amy Adams) trying to recreate all of Julia’s recipes in one year, is a complete and total disaster. Unwatchable. But did it have to be so?
To a certain extent, yes. This is possibly an unfilmable subject. Watching someone blog is death (especially if they murmer the words out loud as they do it). Arbitrary deadlines, as I was just saying, are death. Usually, happy marriages are death. Amazingly, this movie makes Child’s happy marriage (to Stanley Tucci) utterly charming and captivating, but they took it too far in trying to make Powell’s marriage measure up. The scenes with Powell’s husband are flat and unconvincing. (Anyone who read the horrifying reviews of Powell’s second memoir knows why.)
But the Streep scenes are so great that I find myself compelled to find a way to rescue the other half of the movie. First, let’s list the problems (NOT a complete list):
- The biggest problem: Almost every cut back and forth through time is completely unmotivated. The past has no clear relationship to the present. Case in point: we start with Child moving to Paris, then cut to Powell moving to Queens forty years later. But every cut must answer a question posed by the previous shot. What question of Child’s is answered by Powell’s movie to Brooklyn? None. Child neither knows nor cares about Powell. We start with Child here, making her our POV character, but she has no POV on Powell, making the cut impossible.
- Powell hates her job (helping victims of 9/11!), hates her friends for being richer and busier than her, and only loves to cook. When a friend starts a blog, she starts one too out of spite. Not sympathetic, folks.
- She instantly knows what the blog should be and what it should mean. She has already read Child’s biography, already knows everything about Child, and instantly shows her husband tapes of Child explaining her philosophy. We in the audience are about to embark on a journey to get to know Child, but for Powell that journey is already over, so she can’t provide a POV of Child either. This may be the way it actually happened, but it’s death on screen.
- Instead of watching Powell get to know Child, we get scene after scene that tries to wring serious conflict from the physical difficulties of cooking. These are obstacles, not conflicts. Good for a montage, but not the entire second act. Especially since we know there will be no consequences for missing her arbitrary deadline.
- For Powell, the cooking is hard, but the blogging is always totally fulfilling and positive. But while Child’s journey is to become a famous chef—Powell’s journey, such as it is, is to become a famous blogger, so it’s the blogging that should be hard. But how can blogging be hard?? Come back tomorrow…
- But before we get to that, the other biggest problem is the totally bizarre ending. Just before the end, Powell sells the book rights for big money, but, gasp, finds out that Child (who turns out to still be alive) hates the blog. Why? THE MOVIE DOESN’T SAY. (I had to go on the internet to find out that that Child had fought for years to keep people from selling merchandise with her name on it and had adopted a policy of never lending her name to any product, so she didn’t like to see her name used to promote someone else’s book, which is understandable enough.) The movie makes an unexplained reference to this devastating fact, shows that Powell is devastated, but then abruptly cuts off discussion by having Powell declare “There’s something wrong with her! I prefer the Julia that lives in my head!” So she finishes the project, has a triumphant dinner party, then goes to visit a replica of Child’s kitchen where she pretends to converse with Child’s picture.
The end. It’s painfully sad to watch. If this were a Bergman-eque tragedy it would be one thing, but we’re supposed to stand up and cheer! Mind-boggling.
Okay, okay, I’ve told you what you already know. Could anyone re-inflate this fallen soufflé? Tomorrow, I will try…
"These are obstacles, not conflicts." Love it.
Looking forward to tomorrow's post. A while ago you'd mentioned that you were working out some ideas about biopics, the biggest potential pitfalls, the better examples from film history and also the exceptions that break all the rules but still somehow work. I hope those posts are still forthcoming.
Whoops, forgot about that... I have a biopic coming up in two or three weeks when I do another cheesy movies week. Maybe I could do another biopic for The Meddler, too...
I would love to see you expound on the differences between obstacles and conflicts.
I happened to walk through the room when this movie was playing. I was hypnotized into watching about a half hour. It was an unbearable trainwreck. Even the TucciSex (TM) couldn't save it.
Biopic + underrated + cheesy movie = Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, perhaps?
Damn you, Steve!
Mwah, ha, ha, ha, haaaaa!
Yep, if there's a problem with your character, try not to have her spell it out to the audience: "Julia's mad a me? Oh, God -- maybe she thinks I've been exploiting her!" Ah, thanks for the clarification -- that was it...
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