We See Chick Flicks: “Julie & Julia”

Starring Meryl Streep and Amy Adams
Directed by Nora Ephron

The Lowdown: Here’s what I wish the title of this movie was: “Julia.” Period. No Julie, just Julia.

Julie, who you probably know as the blogger and author who cooked through Julia Child’s recipes in a year, is a drip. Julie (as played by Amy Adams) is a self-acknowledged failure on the brink of 30, who had striven to publish a novel and instead wrote only a portion of it before settling for a dreary Manhattan office job. A painful commentary on the state of professional women, there’s the lingering stereotype (and, admittedly, partial reality) of the “lost” thirty-something woman that hangs over the climate Julie exists in. In fact, there are no powerful female characters in Julie Powell’s world. After the first few seconds of a scene where Julie lunches with her friends (all successful executives, plus one narcissistic writer), the tone jumps unexpectedly from normal dialogue to outlandish caricature as the ladies take business calls at the table and brag about their own amazingness. A scene that tries to be comical (it wasn’t) works as a device to make Julie the easy underdog, and cements the guidelines for the pathetic female-power dynamics in this world: If you’re not an egotistical, heartless, money-grabbing bitch, you’re the cowardly victim of them.

Julie is the type of woman who thrives on the self-indulgent obsession of her shortcomings—it’s all she has. And it’s irritating. You want to grab her by the shoulders, shaker her, and say, “Get over it! Stop complaining, and do something!”

“Dooooo something” is the oft-repeated dilemma Julia Child also encounters. “I must find something to dooooo,” she says. But in Child’s case, there’s no insecurity behind it. In fact, it’s in this less modernized world that female empowerment reigns, compared to its near non-existence in the alternating present-day scenes. For here is Julia, whom we later know will become an established female icon, at the beginning of her path. She has more to fight against than Julie, and it’s exciting to see her in the thick of it.

When we meet Child, it’s clear that she’s 80 percent happy (a difficult thing for any woman to claim today). She’s involved in the healthiest of marriages to Paul Child (Stanley Tucci) and living in Paris, a city that she adores with a palpable passion. Meryl Streep’s portrayal is brilliant. There’s a considerable degree of caricature inserted into the role, but it’s not overdone, leaving the audience feeling like they really did get to know Julia’s delicious, brainy, and inspiring personality.

Through the alternating scenes between Julia’s lush France and Julie’s drab Queens, New York, Streep steals the show as she happily outdoes her male counterparts at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school and interacts with her husband in a way that’s touching and un-Hollywood. The two have real love, the kind without the hijinks and fireworks of the movies. It’s a reminder that love doesn’t have to exist between people who look like Brad and Angie, but more often occurs with people like the slightly tubby Julia and the short and bald Paul. Again, Julia’s world gets feminist points for providing a space where women can be happy without the agony of physical self-consciousness. In once scene, she and her sister Dorothy, a tree-like woman with a Molly Brown attitude, stand in front of a mirror, putting the finishing touches on their party outfits. Julie, hugging Dorothy and speaking to the mirror says, “Not too bad, huh?” She pauses. “But not too good either,” she adds, and the two laugh.

The Verdict: On the surface, this is a corny movie about self-discovery, but it’s also a puzzling comparison of women in different eras. In short? It’s a feminist mindf*ck. There are multiple levels and schools of feminism at play here. In discussing “Julie & Julia,” Michael Pollan of The New York Times brings up Betty Friedan, whose book, The Feminine Mystique, came out in 1963, the same year Julia Child started “The French Chef.” Pollan points out that Child appears to be what Friedan fought against. While Friedan was preaching anti-housewifeism and lobbying for the rights of women professionals, Child was capitalizing on the housewife industry. However, Child aligns with Friedan’s ethos when you consider her infamous “alone in the kitchen” mentality wasn’t about women being slaves to the household.

Julie Powell might live in a world closer to Friedan’s ideals, where women have conquered the workforce and have many more freedoms, but Julie’s life seems … so … depressing. She may end up a better person in the end, but knowing that she was so unsatisfied to begin with, in a world of opportunity, is a killer, especially when you know that the female quarter-life crisis is now common. Comparing Powell’s 2002 Manhattan and Julia’s post-WW2 Paris, it’s hard to not ask yourself: “Which is worse: challenging standards in a male-dominated culture of the past, or being the hopeless, lost thirty-something in a world where women can do what they want?”

Julie isn’t truly “alone in the kitchen.” In a typical Hollywood climax, she and her husband have a fight, and he runs off. At the last moment, Julie is returning home from the grocery store when she encounters her thankfully-still-in-love husband approaching their door.

Tears are shed. Julie asks, “Are you back?” He replies, “What’s for dinner?”