Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review: Julie & Julia

You know, there are cute movies, and then there undeniably pleasant movies. They're to be enjoyed. Every second is an enjoyable second. Sometimes, you may laugh out loud. You may feel for the characters. The ending is a happy, cheerful ending. You come out, you feel good, and you move on.

Julie & Julia looked like it promised this. Without being a chick flick. I went in hopeful, and I came out pretty darn happy.

WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

I was paying extra special attention to the movie credits. I only saw two recognizable names: Meryl Streep's and Amy Adams'. However, I took note of the other names - several women. In fact, more women than men! I had a good feeling from then on.

Meryl Streep was a delight to watch as the overly tall, ever slightly so awkward, stumbling foreigner in a foreign place, who nonetheless maintains her dignity, her stubbornness, and determination to master the art of cooking. Julia Child is portrayed as a remarkable woman, who takes things that happen with optimism, even a bit of naivete, and great equanamity.

Amy Adams was the slightly less sympathetic cubicle-farmer call-center worker Julie Powell, working desperately to deal with the horrible calls she gets from people who need help. The montage scenes of her answering calls is really quite pathos-filled. Julie lives with her husband in a small apartment above a pizza place. She feels like she's in a rut, and what does she do? Give herself the deadline of cooking Julia Child's recipes from the latter's book.

The movie starts off with the two women moving into their new homes with their husbands. Both are moving for their husbands' work, and both are somewhat... "less accomplished"? They depend on their husbands for the majority of the income, I'm guessing, even in Julie's case.

The camera switches in between Julie and Julia's lives, making it clear whose story it is, and making it clear, the stories hardly intersect at all. The closest Julia ever comes to acknowledging Julie's existence in the movie is a phone call from an editor towards the end. Julie's life, however, is ruled by her devotion to her project, to master Julia's recipe book.

We follow Julia's mastering of French cooking, faced with discrimination from the French head of the cooking school who treats expat wives with contempt, as if they don't know how to crack an egg. It continues with her meeting Simone and Louisette, with whom she goes on to collaborate with a book on cooking, a massive project that was to take only two years, and eventually becomes seven, as they try to ensure its comprehensiveness. Julia corresponds with her penpal, Avis. Women talking to each other! And in an era where they have been erased out of in history books as being unimportant!

We follow Julie's nervous start at her blog, her complaints, her little successes, her excitement at getting comments from people she doesn't know. She talks to her friends about the project and has to fend off a mom who is patronizing about the project. She still has to deal with her full-time job. She has breakdowns where she screams in exhaustion and frustration and throws tantrums and flops to the floor. Yet, as much as I want to hate her for it, I can't, because I know how real that feeling is. And Adams portrays it in such an earnest way.

We are given peeps into Julia's personal life - her sister, whom she initially tries to introduce to a man as tall as she, but instead, falls in love with a shorter man like her own husband. The suspicion her husband faces as someone who has gone to China. The classes she, Simone and Louisette give to other expatriate wives like herself.

Everyday stuff. You know. And I ate it up. The epic stories are very nice and all, but following lives through the years, the plodding everyday, the little triumphs and small frustrations, they are also nice. Very nice.

Julie & Julia portrays the lives of women as perfectly normal human beings, subject to all the flaws of being human, yet their own persons. Not some hypersexualised entertainment, or caricatures of what men assume women are like. There are no catfights in Julie & Julia. There's some disagreement, some dislike, but never any catfights.

And of course, the dialogue is a dream. The lines struck me as so simple, yet some of them are hilarious! And best, the humour is wickedly delightful. "The damned thing," exclaims Streep as Julia Child, "is as hot as a stiff cock!" There is a brief montage of all four of them taking Tums or something similar to deal with how much they eat.

(I must admit that when Eric Powell tries to interject with the commiseration of "Well, men don't really care about that sort of thing", and Julia's friend exclaims, "OMG! Who's talking about men? Who cares about men?!" I cackled out loud. I was the only one in the theatre to do so, too, but it was devastatingly funny to me, because sometimes, I just want to scream the same thing.)

One of the best things about the movie? Well, yes, it passes the Bechdel Test, which makes this movie a dream come true in that respect. There's also this: Julie and Julia don't have fucked up, dysfunctional relationships.

They don't! They have loving husbands who have their own lives and work without expecting them to just be stereotypes. These husbands are portrayed as actually spending their time with their wives, not trying to run off to be with the guys. Their husbands are in the same scene, more often than not, rather than absent. When Julia gets weary, she puts her head on Paul's shoulder. When Julia gets upset, Eric sits with her and instead of doling out advice, helps her process her thoughts. These husbands give sympathy. Most of all, these husbands aren't afraid of showing, to the public, just how much they love their wives.

You know, all these supposedly feel-good movies about misunderstandings and couples fucking up and reconciling, about couples treating each other shittily and then realizing they love each other, or one partner treating the other shittily and then realizes they've been behaving like a little shit only towards the end? These movies have nothing on the feel-goodiness of the love relationships in Julie & Julia. The couples are in love from the start, and they show that love throughout, and they are still in love toward the end.

Oh, sure, Eric at one point walks out, and we can understand why, because the strain of Julie's project has been wearing down on them. Yet this isn't protrayed as some high dramatic tragedy, but as just another one of those things which could happen to us. And Julie reacts not by screaming and continuing to degenerate because he's not there, but by sucking it up, getting her shit together, apologizing and just getting back on track.

I think this is an important thing, because we're so often given stereotyped relationships where the pair are stilted human beings. Given how much movies influence the culture which inspires it, I think Julie & Julia have made an amazing contribution. If we're gonna have to live in a society which favours monogamy and upholds a single love as a categorical good, we ought to have movies which portray this love in a realistic, positive manner.

Now, clearly, since this movie is about the lives of two women who love to cook and are just making their way in their world, it doesn't address issues of race. Julia Child is in Europe most of the movie, so of course, we don't see her interacting with PoC. We do see her interactions with Madame Bassart and the French people at the market.

It does touch some on class, dealing with the frustration Julie feels at her call-center job, although being upper middle-class myself and having never dealth with that before, I don't know how realistic it is.

Is this movie worth watching? Oh yes.

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