A few weeks ago I read the book of the blog, and enjoyed it. Naturally, the thought of someone finding fame and fortune from a food blog appealed, but what interested me more was the nature of the project itself. Ploughing through a hefty collection of recipes and describing what worked and what didn't; which ingredients were hard to find and which common ones got put to use in new ways; which new techniques were to become part of the regular kitchen repertoire and which would be dropped as soon as the relevant chapter was completed (aspics, mainly)... there was something heroic in the enterprise and something engaging in her personality and style. I maybe found it a little repetitive in the descriptions of various white-out episodes, and I thought it a little disingenuous to gloss over the fact that at some point the project clearly morphed from blog to book-deal, but there was enough foodie detail to keep me interested. I was keen to see how it would translate to the big screen.
The opening credits neatly capture the fact that Julie and Julia is "based on two true stories" and this is the first major difference. While Powell's book featured a few snippets from letters Julia Child and her husband Paul wrote back to the States from various slightly shady diplomatic postings in Europe and Asia, the film devotes at least half its narrative to Julia's journey from frustrated expat wife to a household name (in the US at least). And it does so very successfully too: Meryl Streep is fantastic as Julia Child, and clearly had an absolute hoot playing her, capturing the extraordinary voice and mannerisms pretty much perfectly (I had to check this on YouTube, not having been exposed to any of the original television programmes before). And you can't blame Nora Ephron for making such an effort on the Julia half of the project: it is after all, a great story, what with its glamorous Parisian backdrops and the slightly quirky way the great book seems to have come into being.
The modern-day New York story had very little of the glamour, especially as it oscillated between a scruffy apartment in Queens and a Downtown Manhattan still metaphorically smouldering after September 11, but it had the potential to be just as successful as a story. Unfortunately, it felt a bit as though those making the film cared a lot more for Julia than they did for Julie, painting the blogger's tale with far less colour and characterisation. In the book, for instance, (and presumably the blog), Julie's husband Eric is ever-present in the background, and while we don't get a lot of him personally, we learn enough from the part he plays in any number of escapades to understand why she thinks him a saint (the patron saint of washing up and gimlet making, presumably). In the film, however, Eric is a dweeb who suddenly throws a wobbly when Julie lets her obsession get the better of her. And just as suddenly forgets all about it. A pity.
And there's not enough cooking in the film for my taste, either. There are some good bits about the amount of butter used in French cooking, some entertaining squeamishness at the thought of boiling live lobsters and the famous boeuf bourguignon episode that proves slow cooking and vodka aren't necessarily the wisest combination. But we got next to nothing of the aspic fun, for instance, and Julie apparently managed to debone an entire duck (perhaps the most daunting episode in the entire book) with a single incision. These were frustrating omissions for someone who was mainly there for the food.
Of course I understand that this is not a feature length Nigella food porn adventure, and there's only so much room for such details, especially when you've hit on the brilliant wheeze of telling such a great second story alongside (drawing parallels with house moves, jobs, publishing ventures, dinner parties and so son). But when you think of some of the stuff that was artificially and pointlessly added in to the New York narrative (an entire set of characters seems to have been invented purely to draw a spurious additional parallel with Sex and the City) it seems a shame not to make the foodie element work a bit harder.
But then maybe that's the problem. I'm considering this film from so many different viewpoints – foodie, blogger, blog-reader, book-fan, frustrated writer – that the good old-fashioned filmgoer in me is struggling to see the wood for the trees. I'll do my best... With my most convincing objective hat on, I can recommend this as a light and yet moderately fulfilling film with enough foodie stuff and historical fact to lift it beyond a blah romcom, a few laugh-out-loud moments (although not as many as the lady a few seats along from us seemed to think) and an electric performance from Meryl Streep and her inner Child. The latter alone is reason enough to go.
Afterwards is was back next door to the Rivington Greenwich for welsh rarebit, sardines, steak, chips and a couple of bottles of wine. Lovely.