Thursday, January 28, 2010

Put a fork in it

My sister-in-law, who is a very beautiful and smart and kind person has a penchant for food movies. Her favorite movie, unless she has changed her opinion recently, is Babette's Feast. She's not a died-in-the-wool foodie; she just finds this movie comforting and--forgive the word choice--nourishing. I suppose it makes sense--the title character creates her own haven from the bleakness of her life and her setting by creating a fabulous meal. But the film presumes that terrapin soup, quail and caviar will put your salivary glands into high gear. For myself, I hope that if I was so deeply unsatisfied with my life and my environment, I will just get myself the heck out and settle for Taco Bell on my way to a better existence. Nonetheless, there has emerged an established genre of food movies, mostly for women, whether intentionally or not (e.g., Chocolat, Mostly Martha, Eat Drink Man Woman). Principal exception: the very manly Big Night. (Not to mention the sauces in The Godfather and Goodfellas. I know guys who get together to make sauce and watch those movies and you would not tease them about their masculinity if you wanted to keep your facial features where they are now.)

Julie & Julia (2009) belongs to the food movie subcategory of saving your life with cooking. (Best in category: Ratatouille.) Now I suppose you can save your life by doing anything. Saving orphans, building a house or destroying Gotham City. I mean, I'm sure that The Joker is just trying to do whatever he needs to do to get through the day. Sure, it's evil and destructive and psychopathic, but I'm sure it helps the Joker make sense of his life. So I don't think saving your own life has any special virtue.

The upshot of this is that we have to put up with the self-absorbed Julie Powell to get to the more interesting Julia Child. I read on the Interwebs that the real Julie Powell and her book are even more narcissistic and tedious than the one portrayed by Amy Adams. (Note to all obnoxious famous females--get Amy Adams to play you in the movie so people will remember you as being nicer than you are. I can see her in the Joan Rivers story now, where Joan never dishes anyone and just makes jokes about her own thighs, which look just fine in the movie.)

OK, maybe this is sexist, but if you built a house or a chest of drawers or even a coffee table, you would have something to point to and say, "Look--there--I did that, and it got me through my midlife crisis." Or you tutored an inner city kid who went to Harvard, or helped clean up the Ganges River or something. But to cook breast of chicken in a cream sauce or bone a duck (which sounds like an awful euphemism) and say that is fixing your life--I mean, well, after you make the food people eat it and it's...gone. Call it a blind spot on my part.

And now I'm supposed to remark on how wonderful Meryl Streep is as Julia Child. Meryl Streep is now entering the Jack Nicholson phase of her career, in which more shallow, cliched and vaudevillian her work becomes, the more it is praised. Writer-director Nora Ephron makes a fatal error in showing a lengthy clip of Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child on Saturday Night, inadvertently demonstrating that Aykroyd's impersonation is so much more accurate than Streep's.
This post is coming off more negatively than I felt when I watched the movie. It was pleasant enough as it went by. But the metaphor of cooking as this tremendously life-affirming act that redeems a life of disappointment seems tired. Maybe there's something to it; maybe it's not over-reaching, but at this point it feels well...done.

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