August 30, 2009

MOVIES: Julie & Julia (Nora Ephron, 2009)

What a godawful mess of a movie this is, with only a few decent supporting performances to take pleasure in.

It's really two, two, two movies in one. One story features Amy Adams as Julie Powell, a New York office drone who sets out to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and blog about the experience; the other gives us Meryl Streep as Julia Child, living in Paris in the 1950s, and shows us how that famous cookbook came to be.

Let's start with the contemporary half of the story. The biggest problem is that Adams is horribly miscast. Her special gift is to play characters who radiate joy and innocence without making the audience want to wring their sunny little necks; while I'm always happy to see an actor try to stretch out of her comfort zone, Powell's disillusionment and ennui are a radical leap from Adams' usual characters, and she doesn't come close to pulling it off. Even if she had, I'm not sure it would help. Julie is so unlikable and whiny a woman that I don't think any actress could have made her sympathetic or interesting.

Then we have Streep as Julia Child. When Meryl is good, she can be amazing, but when she's bad, it's painful to watch, and I think she's very bad here. (I realize that this puts me in a very small minority.) She's so busy working on Julia's distinctive voice and physical presence -- and she does get those things right -- that there's no time left to work on creating a human being to go with them. It's one of those Streep performances that is only about the externals, and I was constantly aware that I was watching An Actress At Work.

By contrast, I was delighted by Jane Lynch's small performance as Julia's sister, Dorothy. In order to be convincing as her sister, Lynch is essentially doing her own version of Streep's version of Julia, but unlike Streep, Lynch disappears into the character; the voice and the physicality feel natural and organic instead of always feeling like conscious choices. It wasn't until the credits rolled, in fact, that I even realized that it was Jane Lynch playing the role.

We're meant to be inspired by the way that food and cooking give both women purpose and fulfillment in life, but all we get is a mound of gloppy sentiment built around one woman we don't like and one woman who never becomes anything more than a tedious acting exercise. A ghastly disappointment.

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