Tuesday, 8 June 2010

I Have To Murder And Dismember A Crustacean.

Meryl Streep is a strange beast. My father loves her, he thinks anything he touches is golden. He does like watching films, but he is particularly picky and it is almost impossible to pick what he will like, but you put Meryl Streep in anything and he'll go off and watch it. I think she is a very good actress, but a lot of her more recent output makes me think of Katherine Hepburn's comment about her, about seeing the cogs behind her eyes working (to paraphrase the great Ms Hepburn.) There are, of course, fantastic exceptions. I loved her in Adaptation, and I thought her turn in The Devil Wears Prada was genius. And I've loved her in many, many movies over the years. I've probably seen her in more movies than any other actresses, which may have to do with the fact that she is, incredibly, always working. Enormous respect does have to be bestowed on her, love her or hate her, for the fact that, at 61, she is not only still a big movie star, but a huge box office draw. Sure, she very rarely headlines a film entirely on her own, and many of her roles put her opposite younger stars with significant appeal, but she's always at the top of the list. Her films manage to bring in an incredible crossover audience. I mean, according to Box Office Mojo, she has had three $100mil+ films in the last five years, with this film, Julie & Julia, getting damn close (and giving her another Oscar nomination.) There aren't many actresses full stop who can achieve that, and none that I can think of at her age. In fact, the only actress I can think of who might have more box office clout than Streep at this point is Sandra Bullock, and even then, I think a lot of people kind of go into Bullock films thinking they're going to be average, and possibly being surprised, whereas no one goes into a Streep film excepting anything less than great. I was reading, I think over at The Film Experience, some very early 2010 Oscar predictions, where they had her down as a Best Actress contender even though she is not slated to appear in any films this year, simply because she's Meryl Streep - and I don't think it's too farfetched. 

Moving on. Julie & Julia. The film is based, ostensibly, on the blog and subsequent book of one Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a young woman who, in the early days of the internet, started a blog chronicling her attempts to cook all 500 odd recipes in the iconic Julia Childs' (Streep) Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in 365 days. The blog turned into a bit of a sensation, and Powell then published the book based on the experience. Rom-com queen took up the challenge of turning the exercise into a film, merging and paralleling the travails of Powell with those of Childs. Running Childs' move with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), a diplomat, to his post in Paris alongside the drudgery of Powell's life with husband Eric (Chris Messina) and her challenge to herself, Ephron works them into a nice little single narrative thread. 

Childs finds herself in Paris, loving the food, but unable to find a French cookbook in English. She takes up one class to find it entirely remedial, and so enrols herself in a course for professionals, initially being scorned before setting her stubborn mind to it, practicing like buggery, and proving herself entirely capable. With a couple of friends she sets up a school, and after a while the three decide to write a book. Initially struggling to find a publisher, she eventually scores a deal back in the States, and the book is still printed to this day.

Powell is working in a cubicle in post-9/11 New York, fielding calls from people looking for compensation. The job is heartbreaking, not least for all of the tears and emotions she deals with on a day to day basis. Plus, her friends are all super-successful, and she has all but abandoned her hopes to become a writer. Craving inspiration after she and Eric move from Brooklyn to Queens (if my memory serves me correctly), she sets about writing about her attempts to cook all of these recipes, some of which are very complex, whilst still working and trying to keep her marriage stable. As the year progresses she finds herself followed by more and more people on the internet, and becomes quite a public phenomenon, leading to said book deal.

Streep does a good job of trying to step into Childs quite large shoes (she was 6'2 in real life, whereas Streep is 5'6), but I don't think she quite gets there. She seems a little awkward, and is a little too larger-than-life for me to really get into and feel her character. On the other hand, I really liked Adams as the younger, modern, more vulnerable Powell. She struggles through all of the issues related to trying to maintain her goal and her job and her life and her marriage, and as the year progresses she finds the mere task of finishing the project more of a motivation than a specific desire to actually cook the food. (I think I can relate to her a little with this project...)

The venerable Tucci plays opposite Streep again fantastically - he is seemingly bemused by Childs' dreams, but entirely supportive in a reasonably distant way, and at the same time the tones of fear at his own collapsing career come through enough to keep us in the loop without overpowering the primary narrative intent. Similarly Messina supports Adams' character well as the suffering husband who can see the end in sight but still thinks his suffering too great when confronted by the exhausted hysteria of his troubled wife.

Ephron knows what she is doing with a film like this, and she does it well. The laughs are there, the tears are there, she manipulates her audience without it ever really feeling like she is manipulating you. She's talented, especially with good material, and here she proves it. Her script also shines, deliberately overlapping lines and sentiments between the two chronologically removed stories to hit her point home, but doing it well so it never felt hamfisted or cloying.

That being said, it is just a nice film (scored wonderfully by someone named Alexandre Desplat - never heard of him.) It's not a great film, it's not one I'd watch again, probably, simply because once is enough. There's nothing really drawing me back to it. The characters were nice, the performances were good, it looked good, it flowed well, but there was no shazam. It never kicked me in the guts. Which is perfectly fine for a romantic comedy. They can't all have the heft of Notting Hill. See it for some light entertainment, but don't expect it to rock your world. 3.5 stars.

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