Julie & Julia Movie Review: Mousse, Measuring Cups, and McCarthyism

Switching it up from a dragon lady boss in The Devil Wears Prada and her nasty nun in Doubt, Meryl Streep does ferociously flaky as Julia Child in Julie & Julia, and we’re not just talking one of the famed cookbook celebrity’s French desserts. Written and directed by Nora Ephron, the food fixation comedy connects two generations of determined women – the post-WW II Julia Child in France and post-9/11 Julie Powell in Queens, to reinvent the notion that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, with the addition of somewhat against-the-odds breakout cooking careers for women on traditionally male dominated turf.

The back and forth between the lives and contrasting generations of these two women does come off as a kind of contrived conceit and imposed artificial ingredient into the often lively mix. And while Child enrolls in cooking school into middle age as an idle socialite in France where her husband is a US embassy attache, Powell, played by Amy Adams, decades later, and stuck in a dead end job, starts a wildly popular blog where she vows to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s encyclopedic, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ in the course of a single year.

And as such we hear much less than we’d like to about who exactly the rather skimmed over Julia Child was as a fascinating and far more complex personality beyond the kitchen stove. And also the impact of a dark time in US history, the McCarthy period, traditionally mislabeled as America’s age of innocence, and present but diluted in this movie. So what we’re served up, essentially, despite Streep’s vivacious performance, is Julia Child a la carte.

As for Nora Ephron, the trajectory of her own screen legacy includes the 1983 political classic Silkwood, about anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood, also starring Meryl Streep. Ephron’s outing of Watergate’s Deep Throat, then FBI Assistant Director W. Mark Felt, in connection with her ex-husband, Watergate investigative journalist Carl Bernstein, whose expose brought down the Nixon Administration, is also unfortunately a kind of scrutiny not in evidence with this movie.

What we do learn in Julie & Julia, is that her enormously supportive and devoted husband Paul, played by Stanley Tucci, was summoned back from Paris in 1955 to be interrogated by agents on orders from FBI head J. Edgar Hoover. And to answer questions about his patriotism, his liberal friends, the books he reads, suspected associations with communists, and whether or not he was a homosexual.

What might have given this incident more context and clarity in the movie, was Julia’s conservative Republican roots. And her other absentee career in this film, her work for the OSS, the precursor of the CIA, beginning in WW II, and where she met her future husband Paul who also worked there. Her assignment was in the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section in D.C., where she was a file clerk and also assisted in the development of a shark repellent to prevent sharks from exploding ordnance targeting German U-boats. And Paul worked as a mapmaker there.

That this far from insignificant part of Julia Child’s life would have made this a richer and more meaningful glimpse into her life, not only reveals someone who was much more than just a bored, frivolous-bordering-on-silly and leisure class woman who turned to cooking. But also that the legacy of McCarthyism still apparently rears its head in Hollywood, whether or not rooted in self-censorship.

Sony Pictures

Rated PG-13

2 1/2 stars

Prairie Miller is a New York multimedia journalist online, in print and radio, who reviews movies and conducts in-depth interviews. She can also be heard on WBAI/Pacifica National Radio Network’s Arts Express.