Sunday, August 16, 2009

Julie = bad; Julia = wow!

Well, it pains me to report that the critics have gotten Julie & Julia more or less right.

The Julie of the title (Amy Adams) is not so great. She's self-pitying, she's whiney, she doesn't have any great flair. (And this is spoken by a man who has a true crush on Amy Adams.)

However, the Julia (Meryl Streep) -- as in Julia Child -- surpasses every expectation.

For a stout, mountain of a woman with a horsy, neuter sort of voice, I left the theater with my heart aflutter. Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) was, as I walked to the subway, the luckiest man in the world. Who would think any less of him after discovering such a treasure!

For people who know me, this is actually double praise -- because I'm one of the few people I know who thinks that Meryl Streep is somewhat overrated as an actress.

I'm not saying that Streep is not a good actress. She's in a completely different league than most of the ninnies who have appeared on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. (Like, say, Nicole Kidman.) She actually studied acting. She has breadth and range. I'm sure that Streep would be as comfortable in drawing room comedy as she would be in Shakespeare or George Bernard Shaw. (And if you scroll to the bottom of this review of Julie & Julia, you'll see that Slate did a little video compilation of the accents she's donned over the years, which is really remarkable.)

But there was always something a little synthetic about Streep.

The fact that every voice, every accent, every performance was so note perfect was, in itself, a form of imperfection. They were technically perfect -- but missing a je ne sais quoi. (Pauline Kael accused her of being an "android" -- which I thought was slightly unfair. But it's a difficult accusation to shake once it's been made.)

Well, when she turns in a performance like Julia Child, I might have to take it all back.

This was another note-perfect performance -- but the je ne sais quoi is definitely there. It's a charming, lovely (and over-the-top) performance of a big-hearted woman who revels in food, who revels in Paris and who savors life in a way every person should. When Streep purrs in rapture upon tasting a filet of sole in brown butter, you know that such a lusty, wonderful woman is living somewhere inside the actress.

In the first scene -- when her husband is trying to teach her a few words of French in a car as she utterly butchers the pronunciation -- she never gives up. And I was laughing all the way. (It struck home with me in particular: I was in a car in France with my mother once, trying to teach her in the same feckless manner.)

And that sort of sets the tone for Julia: right from the get-go, she's a good sport. She might be clumsy, but she's game to try to apply herself to anything. When she whips up a meringue, she raises her fist in triumph when she gets it right. (Every victory is a triumph!)

Amy Adams (unfortunately) doesn't have much to do with her role. Partly because the character has almost none of the qualities that Streep has. Adams feels more bratty than sportsmanlike. When she drops a chicken to the floor her despair is such that you'd have thought that she burned the house down. And while some background on her is penciled in (she's from Texas, she was literary review editor at Amherst) there's not much else.

I wish we could see Adams purr with pleasure over something. If only once. But, director Nora Ephron isn't as generous with Adams as she is with Streep. She doesn't mind the fact that her second lead character is a self-professed bitch. (She glumly admits it to one of her friends over drinks.)

Her ambition to be a writer seems more like a craving to be a celebrity writer than a real writer. She craves a book deal and recognition. Is that really what we're supposed to be rooting for? That Julie Powell gets famous?

It's a badly underwritten part -- that was played badly.

But there was no reason the part needed to be so half-baked. After all, Ephron didn't underwrite the other supporting roles. Stanley Tucci is truly marvelous as Paul Child. He feels such great satisfaction with his wife that it's very moving to see the two of them together.

Likewise, when Julia's sister arrives on the scene (Jane Lynch) she gives one of the most delightful, sunny, hilarious cameos I've seen on the screen in a long while.

But the movie wouldn't have been pulled off without Streep, I'm hesitant to say this, but for Streep it feels like the performance of a lifetime.


Also, I couldn't have been the only one to notice that among the opening credits one Dana Stevens was mentioned as an executive producer... Huh?

This can't be the same Dana Stevens who wrote the rave review of the movie for Slate... could it? (I'm sure it isn't. I'm 99 percent sure, anyways. But if it is the same person, then, uh, well Dana you shouldn't get to review your own movie. That's plain crazy.)