Julia & Julie (2009)

Rated PG-13. Our ratings: V- 1; L-3 ; S/N-5. Running Time:2 hours 3 min.

So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better
for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and
enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their
toil through the days of life that God gives them
under the sun.
Ecclesiastes 8:15

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
Psalm 34:8

Julie Powell and Julia Childs never met.

2009 Columbia Pictures

Written and directed by Nora Ephron, Julia and Julie is thus far the most charming film of the summer.

Much of the credit is due to Meryl Streep who so skillfully brings to the screen the quirky charm of Julia Childs, the woman whose self-confidence enabled her to deal with any culinary disaster that struck while she was on camera. The script weaves together incidents from two books, the one by Julie Powell (Amy Adams) giving the film its title, and the other Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, which she wrote with her grand nephew Alex Prud’homme and was published after her death. Although combining the two is an intriguing device, neither of the two women are on the same level of importance, as we soon see as their stories unfold.

The film begins in Paris in 1949 where Julia’s husband Paul is a minor functionary in the U.S. embassy. The two had met during WW 2 in China when both were working for the O.S.S., the agency that became the C.I.A. Paris is apparently Paul’s first posting after the War, and he is as dedicated to making his wife happy as he is to his work. Julia loves the city and its people, but she does not want to become just another social butterfly. The ever-sympathetic Paul encourages her to try her hand at millinery and Bridge, but neither of these were found satisfying.

Jump ahead to Queens in 2003 where Julie (Amy Adams) and Eric Powell are unpacking their household items in a tiny apartment situated above a pizza party. Julie, who aspires to become a writer, is not happy, neither with their living quarters nor with her cubicle job answering the phones in an insurance agency handling the claims of the victims of the Twin Towers attack. She lunches regularly with several friends, all of whom proudly display their more exciting lives—the scene in which they all take or send messages on their cell phones and BlackBerries, thus ignoring her, is played for laughs, though it obviously makes her feel demeaned. She finds relief after work by cooking for her appreciative husband, who, like Paul Childs, tries to help her work out her frustration.

Thus early in the film we see that the women, though separated by over 50 years, are similar in seeking what Joseph Campbell famously described as “seeking one’s bliss.” While dining at a French restaurant Paul asks Julia what she most likes to do, and she replies, “Eat.” Soon she is enrolling as a student in the famous culinary institute Le Cordon Bleu, despite the attempt of the haughty female head administrator to discourage her. We soon see why—when Julia breezily enters the class room where the chef/teacher is instructing his small class, all are men, very much surprised at what they apparently think is an intrusion. However, Julia’s charm works its magic, as it had with the shopkeepers and neighbors in her neighborhood: combined with genuine talent, she soon wins over the teacher. Only the female head remains opposed, making it difficult later for Julia to gain the diploma that will allow her to teach.

Julie Powell, also well supported by her husband, hits upon the idea of writing a blog about cooking her way through Julia Child’s great book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As a writer she knows the important contribution that a deadline makes to the process, so she announces on her blog that she will do this-all 524 recipes in one year. At 365 days this will mean doing two on some days! As we see, both she and Julia will have to overcome many obstacles to achieve their goals, but each is well equipped with the necessary tenacity to see things through.

Julia, living during the sexist 40s and 50s, faces the more daunting roadblocks. This was also the time of the McCarthy era, and for a time Paul is in danger of being fired because he and Julia had served in China. When he is summoned back to Washington, it is not for the expected promotion, but for an intensive grilling by the FBI as to who his friends are in Paris and what his China connections were (and even about his sexual orientation)—McCarthy and some of his fellow Republicans were accusing the Democrats of having “lost” China to the Reds, and thus anyone with even a remote connection to that country was under suspicion as being either “soft on Communism” or a fellow traveler.

Although the linkage of the two women with similar names is an arresting device, I wish that the screen time given to Julie of Queens instead would have dealt with Julia and Paul’s meeting in China and perhaps also more with her subsequent television career following the publication of her book. We see only snatches of her TV series, and we are shown the struggle of her writing what became her masterwoork. (I had not known that this began with her collaborating with two French women who lacked her writing skills.) And the episodes involving her sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch) are absolutely delightful, making us wish for more such family details.

Despite its shortcomings, the film is one of the best of the year. Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci are so engaging that we will remember them long after we have forgotten Julie Powell. For myself as a Christian the film raises the same issue as does the myriad of cooking shows crowding the schedule of the Food and other cable TV channels—are we at times over-emphasizing the importance of food in our lives, perhaps obsessively so? Not that we should become like the ascetics in the engaging film Babette’s Feast who had vowed not to enjoy the food that Babette was about to serve them at her banquet. Indeed, even a cursory search through Scriptures reveals the importance of food in the development of our faith—from Abraham’s dinner invitation to the three mysterious strangers through the Exodus meal that became the basis for the Christian sacramental meal and the manna in the wilderness to the incidents of Jesus‘ eating and drinking with “sinners “ and to the Last Supper and the Easter meals at Lake Galilee and at Emmaus. On numerous occasions I have enjoyed exploring the sacramental connections between such films as the already mentioned Babette’s Feast, as well as Antwone Fisher; Fried Green Tomatoes, The Bread, My Sweet; Mostly Martha; Soul Food; What’s Cooking? But can we, or rather, have we gone far beyond what even Julia Childs might have thought proper in our quest for the perfect meal? Whatever your answer, I still cannot recommend this film too highly. Enjoy this cinematic feats! As Julia so often said, “Bon Appetite!”

For Reflection/Discussion

1. Compare the two women. How are their stories similar? Which of them faced the greatest obstacles? What irony do you see in male dominance of professional cooking and the dictum of Julia’s times, “A woman’s place is in the kitchen” ? Where, if any, do you see signs of sexism today?

2. Which of the women seems more other-directed, and which more self-centered? How does Julie really mess up her relationship with Eric. At what point does she come to herself (in the sense of the prodigal son in Luke 15:17)?

3. How are the stories of both women like what Joseph Campbell calls the quest for bliss? (See The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyer, pp. 117
-121.)

4. Compare the two husbands. How are each unusually sympathetic and supportive? How is what they do for their lives similar to what Christ is said to have done in Philippians 2:1-8. How is Eric pushed beyond his limits for a while?

5. How has food and eating played an important role in the Judaeo-Christian faith through the centuries?

6. How much do you or your friends watch cooking shows on the Food Channel and other TV shows? (Note how most morning “news” shows also highlight food.) What do you think of all the obsession on gourmet food today?

7. What do we call the excessive emphasis upon eating and drinking? For Scripture passages on gluttony see: Proverbs 23.15-26 & 28:7, a warning; and Matthew 11.14-24, a charge made against Jesus; Philippians 3.19, a warning from St. Paul..

8. Watch some of the “food movies” : Antwone Fisher; Fried Green Tomatoes, The Bread, My Sweet; Mostly Martha; Soul Food; The Spitfire Grill; What’s Cooking? This could make for an interesting film series, perhaps culminating in a celebratory observance of the Eucharist.

9. Nora Ephron works into Julia and Paul’s story the dark strain of the McCarthy era. Two good films that chronicle the practice of blacklisting are The Front and Guilty by Suspicion. (Note that Ms. Ephron herself co-wrote the dark-themed film Silkwood, also starring Meryl Streep, about an anti-nuclear activist who might or might not have been murdered.

10. Although played for laughs, what did you think of Julie’s friends’ behavior at their luncheon? What experiences have you had of such ill mannered use of cell phones and BlackBerries? Why do you think people feel they need to feel so connected? What does such use of gadgets say about the user’s opinion of the first she/he is with? Not vety important? Have you taken the initiative to discuss this use of gadgets with friends and/or groups and laid down some rules?

11. What do you think of the way in which Julia Childs reacted to Julie Powell’s blog? Do you think that she was using Julia, despite her veneration of her?