The conventional wisdom about Julie & Julia is that it’s half of a good movie: blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is obnoxious and chef Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is awesome. I understand why they say that. Streep’s big, enthusiastic performance is a joy to behold, and Child is an icon; her magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a true achievement. By comparison, Julie is slight, her angst insignificant. Who cares? To which, if I’m being truly honest, I must reply: I do. I care because I identify with Julie’s angst and her dramatic arc. If Julie & Julia had been just Julia, it would have lost much of its meaning, and as that meaning strikes a chord with me, I cannot want that, even when Julie is a bratty narcissist. Perhaps this makes me a bratty narcissist, too.
Director Nora Ephron’s screenplay tracks back and forth between the two women. Julia Child, living in post-war France with her diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), adores Paris but feels at loose ends without a job of her own. Julie Powell, living in post-9/11 Queens with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), feels unfulfilled and unchallenged in her job. Eventually Julia finds her niche at Le Cordon Bleu and goes on to cowrite a French cookbook for Americans. Julie takes that cookbook and starts a blog documenting her effort to prepare every recipe in it—more than five hundred—in a single year.
As cinematic plots go, these storylines are unusually quiet. Nothing is crashing or blowing up, and no one is meeting cute or enduring oh-so-comic romantic misunderstandings. Julia and Julie don’t face conflicts at the movie’s outset; they face holes—not the generic man-shaped holes that light little rom-coms usually offer but something more personal and profound. Both women want a creative outlet, a purpose, a vocation for their lives. That’s difficult to dramatize—and Ephron doesn’t always do so with complete success—but it’s refreshing, even moving, to see it attempted.
Streep’s half of the film is the most striking. Julia Child was a wonderfully distinctive individual, and Meryl Streep channels that beautifully, somehow conveying the woman’s unaffected physical presence as well as her buoyant personality and unforgettable, warbly voice. Despite the period setting, Julia feels almost radical, in her unassuming way. There’s something sort of shocking (sadly so) about watching a woman who unapologetically loves food—butter and eggs and cream and wine—and whose love is portrayed not as gluttony but as passion, zest, art. One can’t help but love Streep’s Julia.
In a way, Amy Adams has the more difficult part, for Julie lacks Julia’s confidence. The younger woman’s cutesy mannerisms seem weak next to Julia’s effusive gregariousness, and her hero-worship of Julia underlines her own inferiority. What’s more, Julie’s gimmicky blog hardly compares to Julia’s mammoth cookbook, which took years in the making. It’s all too easy to dismiss Julie—and many have—but I think that’s a mistake. The brilliance of Adams’s performance is, in fact, how ordinary her Julie is. She doesn’t look like a movie star slumming it as an “average” girl; with her shaggy, unflattering haircut and palpable air of exhaustion, she looks like any number of young women you see on the subway. She is our stand-in—how could we presume to identify with Julia Child?—but she doesn’t flatter us; she mirrors our weaknesses and inadequacies all too well.
The thing that makes Julie’s story subtly powerful is that it dramatizes her learning not to care about those who dismiss her because blogs are insignificant and her premise is gimmicky. Her arc is toward self-validation. At the movie’s outset, she rebuffs her husband’s attempt to call her a writer because “writers are published”—they must be identified and affirmed by the community at large—but over the course of the movie, she learns that she is a writer, and not because of critics or commenters or contracts. She is a writer because she writes and she says she is. The rest of us can debate the quality of her writing, but we don’t get to define her; she does that herself.
I know I’m taking this all a bit personally. I, too, am a dorky, insecure, happily married young woman who lives in New York and keeps a blog because it fills what would otherwise be a hole in her life. I’m nowhere near as ambitious for my blog as Julie is for hers, but I’ve been posting for more than three years now—sometimes getting up early or staying up late or eating lunch at my computer to write—because when I don’t, I feel lost. My job, which I like, and my husband, whom I love, and my cats, whom I dote upon, aren’t enough; writing helps me be me. Julie & Julia understands that; it even celebrates that, with understated storytelling and charming performances (yes, even Julie can be charming). So how can I help but love it, flaws and all?