"Julie and Julia"
Directed by Nora Ephron
2009, PG-13, 123 min.
I have long admired Nora Ephron's writing. But this year she not only wrote but also produced and directed a movie that IMHO (in my humble -- or is it honest -- opinion) is the best of the year, "Julie and Julia." It's also probably the most underrated.
"Julie and Julia" is a celebration of women, and their "traditional" domain, the kitchen and food. But as with much in life, the pinnacle of many a career is occupied by men, the kitchen included. And so it was in 1950s France when Julia Child arrived in Paris with her U.S. diplomat husband. Men dominated the top cooking positions. It was an all-male class that Ms. Child elbowed her way into at Paris' famous Le Cordon Bleu.
Ephron shows Julia Child as pioneer, bringing her to life for a new generation of women to appreciate. And with Meryl Streep's stellar and Oscar-nominated performance, there is much to appreciate.
Ephron also expertly weaves the modern-day blogging story of Julie Powell's "Julie/Julia Project" with Child's autobiography, "My Life in France." Ephron manages to place each woman in her time, place and circumstance. Powell is in a thankless post-9/11 job answering questions from stressed out victims of that attack.
Child is in post-war France, at the beginning of the anti-Communist witchhunts in the U.S. and reaction against things "foreign." (Ephron portrays the real-life State Department witchhunt interview with Paul Child.) And she embraces open air markets with live eels and other French food delights that would be considered strange by 1950s American cooking standards of tuna casserole topped with potato chips and marshmallow jello molds.
In Ephron's and Streep's world, Child is the definition of "joie de vivre" and embodies a never-quit, fearless spirit, refreshing to see in a woman in the kitchen chopping onions. Ephron's nuanced portrayal of the Childs' relationship also makes you realize Paul was quite a forward thinking man, un-intimidated by Julia's exuberance and intelligence, happy to be her partner on this journey.
Julia Child embarks with two French women, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, into unknown territory for everyone - man or woman. They write a French cookbook for the American kitchen (actually Child says for women without servants), "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
As a child of Saturday Night Live's portrayal of Ms. Child, I never quite took her too seriously. Yet after seeing "Julie and Julia" I found a new and profound appreciation for the pioneer chef. If it wasn't for Julia Child, who not only pioneered and mastered the complexities of French cooking in an American context, but also created the TV chef, where would the Food Network or Iron Chef be?
The story of blogging Julie was, for me, just a foil to modernize and bring anew the life and times and contribution of Julia Child - although Ephron's expertise makes the character more interesting than she is reported to be in life.
"Julie and Julia" is a refreshing portrayal of two adult women, passionate about cooking and food science. It is funny and a welcome respite from too many female roles that can be put into either victim or object categories.
If I had a vote for Best Director, it would go to Ephron. And apparently the Oscar committee doesn't agree with me since Ephron is not on this year's list.
Photo: Meryl Streep plays Julia Child in the movie "Julie and Julia."