Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I don't hate women. Just one in particular.

I'm not a film critic. I don't want to be a film critic. But every once in a while, I'll see a film that pisses me off so much, I can't help but use it as an example of what not to do.

The other night, in a moment of weakness, I had the great misfortune to let my wife talk me into watching 'Julie and Julia'.

That's not to say I didn't enjoy anything about it. Meryl Streep is –– as usual –– delightful. It's so nice to see an actor considered "serious" having such serious fun with a character. And the historical tidbits about Julia Child were pretty neat and nicely presented. I'd heard she was a spy, but I didn't know anything else about the path that took her from the OSS to cooking icon.

So it's not Meryl Streep I hate.

Amy Adams walks a really delicate line. There's nothing redeeming about her character –– she's a self-absorbed foodie who, in an effort to prove a point to herself and her shallow friends, neglects her husband and her job. But she manages to infuse the role with a significant amount of sympathy.

It's not Amy Adams I hate.

That leaves Nora Ephron.

"Hate" is a strong word. Especially for someone who I've just gone and indirectly complimented for doing a more than adequate job in a couple of the more important capacities of a director. So what gives?

In a word: Story. Or, to be more specific, lack thereof.

Distilled to its essence, 'Julie and Julia' is about a woman who gives herself an assignment and a deadline, then meets the assignment within the deadline. Period. There's no adversity, no conflict, no potential loss. The protagonist, Julie, has nothing at stake.

'Julie and Julia' is about as compelling as watching someone shop for groceries. First she chooses some nice artichokes, then she picks up a pound of butter... It's not a film. It's a reenactment.

Sure, Julie has minor setbacks. She oversleeps and her boef bourguignon is ruined. The reporter from the Christian Science monitor cancels dinner. So fucking what? Within a couple of screen minutes she's cooked another boef bourguignon and thanks to an article in the New York Times, she comes home to 63 messages from agents, reporters, managers, and editors on her answering machine.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Okay, fine, Brian. You don't like the story. But why such vitriol?"

Because 'Julie and Julia' is a missed opportunity. It could have been a good film. Hell, it could have been a great film. There's no reason that Julie's character couldn't have struggled against seemingly overwhelming odds, overcoming adversity on her way to completing her self-assigned task, except that Nora Ephron either couldn't or wouldn't be bothered to write her character that way.

That's where I get incensed. I know Nora Ephron doesn't need to make good films, but she doesn't need to take potentially good films and make them crappy, either. She's both the writer and director here, and as Tobey Maguire says in Spiderman', "With great power comes great responsibility."

Clear your mind of what you know and ask yourself which project holds more potential for telling an interesting story, a) a movie based on a 43-year-old ride at an amusement park or b) a movie about a woman who idolizes a chef and uses that chef to inspire her to become not just a better cook, but a better person?

Gore Verbinski (with 'Pirates of the Carribbean') created an amazing story out of almost nothing. Nora Ephron, on the other hand, was handed –– forgive the food metaphor –– a beautiful dry-aged steak and decided to grind it into hamburger, smother it with Accent™, and boil it.

Now do you see why I'm so incensed?

(By the way, lest you think I'm just being misogynistic, I should point out that I consider 'Big', directed by Penny Marshall and written by Gary Ross and Anne Spielberg, one of Hollywood's great films of –– well –– ever, and no, I don't think Gary Ross deserves a disproportionate amount of the credit.)

Nora Ephron will never read this blog, of course. She doesn't need to. And frankly, if I were her, I wouldn't change the formula that's been working since 1993, when she did 'Sleepless in Seattle', which by the way I hated for other reasons.

But please, if my wife ever comes home with another Nora Ephron movie, remind me that I would have a much more rewarding experience replacing the wax rings under our toilets.


  1. Interesting perspective and as always, an enjoyable and entertaining read. I actually enjoyed the film, though I was forced to watch it because my 80 year old mother insisted. Wasn't this story based on an actual person and events? Maybe Nora wanted to stay true to the real story and not embellish it too much. I do have to admit I was a bit disappointed, though not surprised, by Julia's reaction to Julie's story at the end. But again, as you stated, in the end it was supposed to be about becoming "a better person".

    Or was it?

  2. The thing that bothers me the most is how easily the problem could have been fixed. There were actually lines in the film that would have supported the notion of Julie being driven by a need to complete something. What was missing was its demonstration as a critical characteristic.

    Julie should have constantly been tempted to abandon the project. She should have been relieved when the reporter cancelled, not upset. And the ultimate triumph should have only peripherally had to do with the calls from the agents, the book deal, and the movie. Not only would we have felt that Julie actually triumphed, we would have felt that she deserved to triumph.

    As for staying true to the story, I like to think that I saw enough evidence in the film that it was there. And if it wasn't, the film is nothing more than the chronicle of a woman who believes she deserves to be famous. And Julia Child's reaction is actually quite poignant.

  3. Another great post Brian.

    My question is, since there was no conflict how did the movie end?

  4. I haven't seen it, but it sounds an awful lot like the european way of making anti-hollywood pointless movies...

  5. Not that this is your point, but I think it was Peter's/Spiderman's Uncle that said the great power/great responsibility line.

  6. Brian, you got the movie all wrong. It's likes a Zen Koan, you know, the sound of one hand clapping.

    Actually, that is a joke. I saw this movie with my wife, admittedly skeptical going in, but having read the great Vanity Fair article on Julia Child that was written coincident to the movie's release, I was open minded, and to that end, the Julia side of the movie delivered.

    Julie side, not so much. In fact, it was worse than no point, as essential to Julia's story is pure earnestness and joy for life, a passion for food and it's essential chemistry.

    If the point was for Julie to be the anti-Julia, then at least we know why Julia back-channels the words of disdain at the end of the film, right?

  7. yeah... ummm read the book. The movie was perfect