Kathryn Bigelow’s respectable effort in 2009’s gritty war drama The Hurt Locker aside, most cinematic adventures helmed by the female persuasion end up like Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron’s listless, limp noodle adaptation of Julie Powell’s inexplicably popular blog and book, both of which should go forever unread by anyone sporting a sliver of self-respect. Regardless of the characters involved, time period under discussion, or geographic location explored (here, contemporary Queens and post-war Paris), the centerpiece becomes the emotional retardation of women, and how, despite driving away the men in their lives with manipulative whining, navel-gazing, and spontaneously irrational outbursts, they are heroic for no reason save their refusal to give in. Their victories, hard-won though they may be, are little more than endurance tests of bulldog stubbornness; endless rounds of tears, roars, and spitfire blasts to keep everyone within earshot attending to their infantile desires. Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is merely the latest in this hate parade, and it seems fitting that her absence of direction (and meaningful work) leads to an obsessive on-line journal that comes to substitute for actual life. She charts her hopes, dreams, cares, and woes, but primarily, this is a quest to cook each and every recipe from Julia Child’s classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As you would expect, it’s less about the food than the need to fill a giant chasm spurred by the complete absence of personality. How fortunate she has yet another audience via DVD.
If this unfortunate movie has crossed your path at all, it’s likely you’ve heard that while the Julie scenes are pointless and irritating, the Julia sections shine with a luminous, effortless grace. After all, it’s Meryl Streep we’re talking about, and even in fluff, she always brings her A-game. Having won several critics’ awards so far, she’s now the frontrunner for the Oscar, either signaling the Academy’s pathological need to end the Master’s nearly three-decade drought, or the year’s unparalleled dearth of captivating performances. I’m certain it’s a dash of each, but who on earth thought the long wait would be broken by something so utterly embarrassing? Not only does the film stumble along like a wounded halfwit in search of velvet, the scenes with Julia Child do little but bring to light how even the greatest of talents cannot elevate shit-stained material. We thought Streep could get away with reading the phone book on the john, but sure enough, even she has her limits. Playing Child like a cross between Mrs. Doubtfire and Andre the Giant, Streep is shockingly hateful; a woebegone circus freak with all the charisma of pancreatic cancer. Even her earthy, “common” touch equates to a mangled hoof down the blackboard, and while it would normally be a relief to flip back to the present, Julie’s umpteenth kitchen meltdown is hardly the healing ointment to erase the pain.
Fuck it, man, Streep is downright awful, and no amount of awards buzz can kill the odor. It’s not only a career nadir, it’s enough to resurrect a new blacklist, replacing alleged Communism with the unholy trilogy of bad hair, a dopey drawl, and insipid impersonation. Sure, Meryl, you have that unmistakable voice down pat, but tell us again how this differs from Dan Aykroyd’s classically overrated SNL bit? Predictably, the movie has Julie watch this very scene with her Job-like husband, which serves to unintentionally highlight the absurdity of this whole goddamn enterprise. Sure, we’ve been tolerant of industry titans slumming for dollars and applause before, from Olivier’s “I hef no son” two-step with Neil Diamond, to Joan Crawford jerking off some Geico caveman. And let’s not even mention what Brando did with that progeria midget. But I had always kept Streep on a loftier, more sensible perch, as if the rot was simply her way of winking in our direction. Can she really be blamed, though, when the Best Actress talk is coming from the critical realm? Perhaps she always knew this was a late summer tax write-off; a way to wind down before the real work began. Nope, this is Meryl’s Choice, and this time, she sent us all to the gas chamber.