Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Feast & Famine

Nora Ephron missed the gravy boat. Had she chopped off the Julie half of her new film Julie and Julia, she could have cooked up a truly delicious bio-pic of celebrated chef Julia Child. And probably handed Meryl Streep her third long overdo Oscar. Meryl may still get the nod as she magically transforms into the awkwardly lovable Child, embodying her every mannerism, her voice, her height.

Sharing a place at Julia's table in Paris in the early 1950's is so inviting; watching her eat up the food, the people, the very romantic city itself is simply delectable. Unfortunately, our five star tour takes jarring 2002 detours to Julie Powell's drab little apartment above a pizzeria in Queens. Julie( another journeyman performance by Amy Adams) is a frustrated writer who escapes her dreary and draining bureaucratic job by preparing Julia's classic recipes. Egged on by her adorable and saintly husband she vows to complete 500 plus recipes in a year's time and blog about it. She dives into the project with zeal and a grating ( and not in the yummy Pecorino Romano way) spoonful of kvetching, She complains to her husband, her mother, her far more successful friends. The trouble is: we've seen this sort of thing before. Hey, some of us have even lived it ( well, maybe not the part about the 500 recipes). The book upon which this half of the movie is based--which is supposedly based on a true story--may well be funny and heartfelt. But on the screen it just doesn't make for a very satisfying meal.

Every time Julie drops a duck breast or laments lassoing a live lobster, I yearn to be back in Paris where Julia is dazzling her classmates at the Cordon Bleu,while circumventing the snarky woman who runs the school; making demo dinners for a her sweet hubby( the always winning Stanley Tucci) or meeting the quirky characters who will become her cookbook collaborators.

There are so many exotic flavors, so many juicy details in the Julia Child story. Yet Ephron--hellbent on making a movie about the power of happy matrimony(she does dole out a smattering of sweet and savory love scenes)-- offers only a morsel here, a nibble there. We know Julia's husband, Paul is a diplomat, but his exact position remains elusive. At one point he is summoned to Washington where he's subjected to a grilling from Sen. McCarthy's henchmen and in short order is assigned to one less glamorous outpost after another. There is Julia's contentious relationship with her staunchly Republican father and an amusing visit with her equally off-beat and enthusiastic sister(a nice turn by Jane Lynch). All these intriguing ingredients add up to little more than an amuse bouche. After all, there's simply no time, when we've got to get back to Queens to watch Julie angsting over aspics and blubbering over burnt beuf Borgenion.

I'm sure another filmmaker will be tempted to dish out a five course, five star banquet--one that captures the richly textured layers of Julia Child's fascinating life. And the service might be faster than you think. Remember those two brilliant Truman Capote movies a few years back? Capote--which came out first--garnered most of the attention and accolades including an Oscar for Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Toby Jones' Infamous--lighter and more spot-on was quickly relegated to DVD and is certainly worth adding to your NetFlix list. Sad to say, but Meryl Streep's not likely to clanking around Julia's kitchen again. Maybe Emma Thompson could sink her teeth into the role. Or Joan Cusak.(Don't bother auditioning, Dan Aykroyd; you had your shot on SNL).

In the meantime, if you want to indulge in a foodie movie that will make your mouth water at both the menu and the characters, check out Big Night, the 1996 nugget about two Italian immigrant brothers trying to make a go of the restaurant biz while preparing for a visit from crooner Louis Prima in the 1950's. Come to think of it, this one was co-written and directed (along with Campbell Scott)by Stanley Tucci, who also starred as one of the brothers. I sense a party game: 360 degrees ( for 2 hours and 14 minutes) of Stanley Tucci.

A wafer thin confection, Julie and Julia is still worth the price of admission thanks to Meryl Streep's scrumptious performance. Just don't expect a cinematic feast. What you'll enjoy instead is a tasty snack. One that leaves you hungry for more. And less.

Drive safe. Play nice. Think peace.


No comments: