23 October 2009

Julie & Julia & Zombies

Bone appétit: Eisenberg, Stone, Breslin, and Harrelson
versus the Zombies
It’s a measure of how badly Nora Ephron failed, in her big-screen adaptation of the lives of nitwit blogger Julie Powell and foodie icon Julia Child, that I preferred Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland to her Julie & Julia. Ordinarily, you can’t get me to go near a zombie picture, much less to enjoy one, yet in this case, I’d rather go near a zombie — a real one — than spend another minute in the company of Ephron’s characters.

Watch Me Acting! Over Here! Look! It’s Me — Meryl Streep!
I Know It’s Hard to Believe, but It’s True! Really!
See My Impressive Choices?
Judy Graubart’s Julia Grownup did it better.

Perhaps Julie & Julia struck too close to home: Powell turns to her blog for many of the reasons that compelled me to begin “publishing” my “work” in this space. However, I felt no special sympathy for her, and the movie’s Julie (Amy Adams) never quite confronts what any viewer must: though her husband (Chris Messina) insists that Julie’s a writer, and presumably the movie has been an account of her personal growth and self-realization (explicitly compared with Julia Child’s), she is by far the least interesting character in the movie, and whatever charms her writing may possess are kept far offscreen.

By trying to link two very different stories, everything about the movie is thrown off-balance. For example, the scenes that deal directly with Child feature fun cameos by New York theater actors (Linda Emond! Deborah Rush! Stephen Bogardus! Richard Bekins! Marceline Hugot!), as well as superlative work from Stanley Tucci and Jane Lynch as Child’s husband and sister; the portions of the movie that deal with Powell feature ... a lot of whining from poor old Amy Adams.

Message to Julie Powell: Nut up or shut up

We never get much sense of what’s at stake — we seldom get much sense of what Powell is cooking, what ingredient or technique is involved, or why she finds it difficult. It’s God’s truth that 76 percent of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking aren’t difficult at all. The rest require a little more time or technique than most American cooks possess, but they’re not impossible. (I’ve had no training whatever, yet I manage just fine.)

The real-life Child wasn’t far wrong when she observed that Powell “wasn’t serious.” Ephron gives us even less sense of Child in the kitchen, though we do get a couple of lovely scenes in which Meryl Streep (as Julia) savors a dish that someone else has prepared.

In short, Ephron has created a movie about aesthetic and sensual pleasures that is almost completely lacking in them — at least, in a form that a viewer can share. Only in depicting the conjugal bliss of Julia and Paul Child does Ephron observe the all-important Rule #32: “Enjoy the little things.”

Does Jane Lynch’s performance here mean that Meryl Streep will make a guest appearance on Glee this season?
Please? Pretty please?

That rule is central to Zombieland, a movie that does very little but enjoy the little things: character quirks, relationship-revealing dialogue riffs, offbeat monomania, and one of the funniest “mystery guest” cameo performances I’ve ever seen. Gore is secondary here, and so, for that matter, are zombies: it’s all about what gives you pleasure when everything else has let you down.

Even the movie’s rampant product-placement turns out to be telling (and who thought we’d still care about brand names, in the post-zombie apocalypse?), as Woody Harrelson’s obsession with Twinkies and his anguished cries of “I want my Caddy back” accrue to create a character portrait — something like those Arcimboldo paintings where all the fruits and vegetables combine to depict a human face.

In short, though I risk comparison to Billy Sol Hurok and The Farm Film Report, I admit that I’d have enjoyed Julie & Julia more if it had been more like Zombieland.

Blowed up good!


mick said...

I just finished watching the movie and I went searching for the woman who played Avis because I was convinced that she sounded exactly like Madeline Kahn. I googled "Madeline Kahn Deborah Rush" and your blog was the top entry. I may have the wrong character in the movie.

Mick - Hamden, CT

William V. Madison said...

You've got the right character -- Deborah Rush does have a speaking voice somewhat similar to Madeline Kahn's. And what a handsome distinction for this blog! So much nicer than being the top Google hit for the words "Bill Madison" and "unpleasant odor."

Wait ... these comments aren't searchable, are they?

Buck said...

I'm really happy to find YOUR blog. I've gone way past my lunch hour reading it. (And yes, we have way too much in common.) Perhaps some Goliadian-common-denominator-nature-thing going on there.
Linc and I both have an inordinate passion for area codes. Go figure.