It’s “based on two true stories,” according to the director-writer-producer, Nora Ephron. The sales pitch: Julia Child (Meryl Streep) an American in Paris became the Nigella Lawson of her day. Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is her disciple, a blogger who seeks to cook every recipe, in Child’s 1961 bestseller, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Only time separates them in this double-narrative. Child’s world, in early postwar Paris, 1949, and Powell’s 2002 post-9/11 world, Queens, New York, seem like attractive stages, on the surface. So what we get here, in theory, are two stories for the price of one; we can enjoy watching Julia Child in Paris, and watching Julie Powell in New York trying to cook her hero’s butter-centric recipes, decades later.
We can even watch Julie watching Julia’s old cooking show!
While the movie starts off innocently enough, it evolves into a screeching chick flick, weighed down by politically correct talking points. I wanted to like Julia, who sounds rather like one Hyacinth Bucket, from Keeping Up Appearances. I liked the idea of an American in Paris, furiously slicing a mountain of onions at home, in order to compete with her speedy male classmates at Les Cordon Bleu cooking school. I liked the idea of a foreigner taking to the streets, instead of acting like a stereotypical diplomat’s wife too. I even liked the idea of a woman trying to cash in – selling French recipes to Americans.
But I never bought the idea of Julia, as another victim of the so-called McCarthy era. Even at her sister’s wedding in America, Streep’s character sounds just as boring as Streep, pontificating about the allegedly evil McCarthy; the so-called reason why certain books are banned in the United States; the so-called reason whiny public servants lost their precious government jobs. She sounds strained at times, as if she’s running for Congress, and the movie suffers as a result.
Remarkably, the story claims that poor Julia’s husband had to move around to different European cities, and that this somehow interfered with madam’s writing career. Well, he was a diplomat.
Suits were even asking them personal questions. “Oh, the gulags,” I thought. On the one hand, communism killed 100 million people (and counting); on the other McCarthy made Child’s friends feel insecure. Never mind that intercepted Red Russian intelligence messages confirm that there were 350 (and counting) Soviet-serving white ants infiltrating America’s power centers. History teaches us that the Venona cables vindicated the Senator.
And in another scene, Republicans are likened to clueless breeders. Never mind that America’s first congresswoman was a Republican. Who was paranoid? Try Stalin. Or Julia Child’s social circle for paranoia.
I wanted to like Julie Powell too, and tried to. I liked the idea of someone trying to prepare outdated recipes from another era, and Amy Adams is a cute-looking actress, to be sure. I liked the idea of a liberal woman cooking, and even killing animals to achieve her goal, in the process. I even liked the idea of a movie that acknowledges the fact that modern women too love cooking for men. Some even like wearing pearls in the kitchen.
But is Julie a victim too? Yes, cries the movie, in little but profound ways. Julie blogs on Salon.com’s Bush-is-Hitler website, she reads and later receives praise from The New York Times, a Democrats-first newspaper, but conservatives are like McCarthy. Evil Republicans will not employ her we’re told, and she better watch her back. Worse, some 9-11 victims sulk to her on the phone at her paid job, when she isn’t blogging and cooking.
More, Julie whines (unconvincingly) about her small apartment, after choosing to live in New York. Some of her recipes are hard to prepare, like lobster. Her allegedly hypocritical mother, with a provincial accent, rants on the phone. So by the time Julie stuffs a meal up for an invited guest, my sympathy reserves were completely empty. And when she falls out with her boyfriend, I was left wondering: What took him so long?
The strong feeling that liberals are victims overcoming formidable obstacles and heroes is very hard to swallow, indeed. True believers, however, will like the fantasy though, that before Julia Child came on the scene, Americans were Philistines, living off TV meals and plastic hamburgers. They will ignore the fact that finger-licking Southern fried chickens, shrimp remoulade gumbos, Moon Pies, organic beers (made by Puritans, of course), and countless other glorious foods and drinks existed before their hero’s birth. Just like they ignore Cold War history.
The movie’s argument is clear: If you’re middle to high-bourgeois liberal woman, who can turn on the tears, then you too can become a famous kitchen queen. Vegetarian-feminists, Republicans and Cold War historians will not be saying bon appétit!