As per its own punchy subhead, Julie and Julia is “based on two true stories,” parallel stories of feminist self-determination, set half a century apart, then and now. One focuses on Julie Powell, a beleaguered and not terribly committed phone operator at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, to aid victims of 9/11. In search of personal direction and fulfillment, she lights upon the idea of, in a single self-imposed year, cooking her way through volume one of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (although she herself, she claims, had theretofore never in her life eaten an egg), 365 days, 524 recipes, in a cramped little efficiency kitchen in her and her husband’s Queens apartment above a pizzeria. And, a more important idea than the project itself, writing a blog about it. The other story is that of the American co-author of the aforesaid Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child, a diplomat’s wife in post-WWII Paris, also in search of personal direction and fulfillment (the pain of Julia’s childlessness is made wordlessly plain), trying her hand at hat-making and bridge-playing before enrolling in the male bastion of the Cordon Bleu culinary school and getting the notion of writing the first French cookbook in the English language. Television stardom was well down the road.
Though each story in turn gets equal time, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, the film suffers from a built-in imbalance. The women, no need to be overly polite about it, are not equal pioneers. The one — the earlier — the pathfinder — was, in her own humorously grandiose phrase, out to “change the world,” while the other — the follower — the copier — the coattail rider — was only out to carve herself a niche in the blogosphere and eventually the publishing world. Well, bully for her, but she did so — not to diminish the measure of hard work in it — with what amounts to a stunt, a mere gimmick, a piece of grandstanding. And nor are the players equal. Amy Adams is an agreeable light-comedy actress (not so agreeable a heavier actress), whose Julie has been drastically watered down from the real McCoy, the real Powell, evidently out of primary concern that everyone should like her and every woman identify with her. Meryl Streep, meanwhile, is nothing less than the prima donna of contemporary American cinema; the virtual monopolist, inasmuch as she can play practically anything, of the plum female roles “of a certain age,” few as they nowadays are; the envy, and conceivably the voodoo doll, of the fallen-away actresses of her generation (Glenn Close, Jessica Lange, Sissy Spacek, Debra Winger, Kathleen Turner, et al.); not only the absolute ruler but just about the sole survivor. And her Julia, far from a bland Everywoman, is a one-of-a-kind: a stylized self-parodist parodied to perfection, but softened and molded into a rounded, humanized, full-service screen character, one who nevertheless can get a laugh without benefit of a funny line, benefit simply of those inimitable clarinetty whoops and whinnies, blastoffs and nosedives, all the ups and downs, twists and turns, of that exhilarating vocal rollercoaster. We want at all times, not just half the time, to be with Julia. (Who in real life, as she neared ninety, reportedly thought little of Julie, and never granted the latter’s wish of a meeting.) We should probably be grateful to writer and director Nora Ephron, whose title comes from Powell’s blown-up blog but whose source material expanded to encompass Child’s autobiography, that we have Julia-slash-Meryl even half the time. It could have been less.
Funny People stands as a monument of Success Going to One’s Head. The head in question belongs to writer-director-producer Judd Apatow, previously of The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up, but more widely known as just producer and/or writer, weather vane, fashion plate, brand name, school headmaster. In these capacities he has apparently accumulated sufficient Hollywood capital to command what fairly shrieks of Final Cut (one shudders to imagine a DVD of the Director’s Cut, unless it would be the Director’s Second-Thoughts Cut), a paceless, desultory, two-and-a-half-hour comedy-drama centered around a terminally ill comedian played by and modelled on Adam Sandler, who hires a struggling stand-up comic (a slimmer Seth Rogen whose slimness is much commented on) as a joke writer, gofer, and all-purpose companion, and who, upon his miraculous recovery under a program of experimental drugs, tries to reconnect with and reignite a now married Old Flame played by Leslie Mann, Mrs. Apatow in real life. Among the self-indulgences, besides merely the running time, are Memory Lane clips of the young Sandler and Mann, key roles for the two preteen Apatow daughters, a raft of as-themselves celebrity cameos, and more penis references, in a wide variety of synonyms, than you could shake a stick at — or a sheaf of sticks at. The serious bits at least see to it that there are some laughs in the film, and it’s a tribute to Mann (to whom I await a decent opportunity to pay higher tribute) that her own serious bits can indeed be taken seriously. She also, at a different time, gets an actual intended laugh when in the course of a marital row she mimics the Aussie accent of her husband (Eric Bana). I suppose it’s a credit to Apatow, something less than a tribute to him, that he attempts some difficult and subtle things in human interactions. He manages to make them look more difficult than subtle.
Paper Heart, directed by Nicholas Jasenovec, portrayed on screen by Jake Johnson, is an oddball blend of documentary and pseudodocumentary on the subject of love in general and its absence, in particular, from the life of comedienne Charlyne Yi, who stood out in a small part in the above-mentioned Knocked Up. “It’s about I don’t believe in love,” she sums up the project with characteristic informality and infelicity. This absence might be more puzzling or alarming if the now twenty-three-year-old didn’t act like she were twelve and boys were frogs and snails and puppy-dog tails. The on-the-road, man-on-the-street interviews, in spots such as Las Vegas, Nashville, Lubbock, Amarillo, and Oklahoma City, would appear to be authentically documentary albeit triflingly anecdotal (the anecdotes occasionally illustrated with low-tech puppet re-enactments). On the other hand, Yi’s embryonic relationship with actor Michael Cera under the ever-present eye of the camera, although almost unbearably realistic in self-consciousness and awkwardness, is never really believable as cinéma vérité. They are good enough actors, or anyhow idiosyncratic enough, to create an illusion of reality; not enough to dispel the illusion. And while they each have their childlike charms, Cera’s perhaps more abundant and without question more familiar, the unpersuasiveness deprives the spectator of a rooting interest. The fix is in.
The Cove, a call-to-action documentary by Louie Psihoyos, is rather like a magnified detail from The End of the Line, a tight focus on a “little town with a really big secret,” the Japanese fishing port of Taiji, where an estimated twenty-three thousand dolphins and porpoises are covertly slaughtered every year. Upon his return from there, Psihoyos has pictures of the blood-red water to prove it. His chief guide and ally in this endeavor is Ric O’Barry, the one-time dolphin trainer on the Flipper TV series in the Sixties, who flipped (if you will) when the aquatic star of the show, real name Kathy, committed “suicide.” In large part the film is composed of standard talking-heads sermonettes, but it also records the hugger-mugger “mission” of an Ocean’s Eleven commando team in the field: high-def video cameras concealed in fake rocks, and so forth. The operation, for all its justifiable paranoia, doesn’t approach the pitch of excitement we would expect of a fictional thriller. But if it is not quite tense, at least it’s present-tense.