Sunday, January 3, 2010

Movies I'm Watching: Biopics--Julie and Julia and Me and Orson Welles

In the last couple of weeks I've seen two (or should I say three?) entertaining films based on biographies, Me and Orson Welles and Julie & Julia, although the latter was something of a disappointment.

Me and Orson Welles (2009, directed by Richard Linklater) is based loosely on fact, going behind the scenes at the Mercury Theater, newly established in New York in 1937 by Orson Welles and John Houseman, and telling an embellished version of the story of its famous production of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in that year, which Welles chose to set in fascist Italy. (If what we see is accurate, the film gives us a fascinating glimpse of what the original production might have looked like). How much is true to life is immaterial, however. The story is mostly a vehicle for a portrait of the young Orson Welles that becomes intertwined with a coming-of-age story centered on the Zac Efron character, a dreamy high school student that bluffs his way into the production, falls in love with Sonja Jones, Welles's assistant (played engagingly by Claire Danes), and then suffers a grand disillusionment. Although this is the New York theater, I was reminded of the silly lyrics to Hooray for Hollywood (Richard Whiting/Johnny Mercer) from the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel "Where any shop girl can be a top girl...." "Where any office boy or young mechanic can be a panic...." Oddly, that satirical song, making fun of Hollywood, has become its anthem. Whether that makes sense or not, I've always liked the original version sung by Johnnie Davis and Frances Langford backed by Benny Goodman and his orchestra (click the link above). But I digress.

Back to Me and Orson Welles. Christian McKay, in the role of Welles, is utterly convincing. The movie was worth seeing just for his performance. It is rare to be able to watch an historical character come to life on screen without constantly having to tell oneself that the actor is the person he's supposed to be. One wonders if the Mercury Theater was as chaotic as the film suggests, and I can't say whether the film really tells us anything new about Welles (is it simply rehashing a stale view of the man?), but there is no need to take things too seriously. Me and Orson Welles is good, light entertainment.

Julie & Julia (2009, directed by Nora Ephron) was fun to watch. That said, it left me full but unsatisfied. To paraphrase Mark Twain, Julie & Julia is a film about Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) and her now-famous cooking blog with a film about Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her long-famous cookbook struggling to get out. I couldn't help feeling that this would have been better as two films--although it's easy to understand the attempt to draw parallels between the efforts of the two women to master the art of French cooking, each in her own way, each in her own period of history--Julia Child by spending years in France cooking and researching recipes, Julie Powell by attempting to make all 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, originally published 1961) in the course of a year.

Meryl Streep is delightful as Julia Child. Some of the funniest scenes in the movie draw on the sheer force of Child's indomitable personality (we see her tackle dozens of onions in an effort to get her chopping skills up to snuff; her flustered apprehension ahead of the appearance of her sister at the train station is hilarious). During the contemporary scenes (the Julie storyline), however, I found myself longing to see more of Julia, less of Julie and friends. Paul Child, Julia's husband, was an interesting man in his own right. It was frustrating to see him appear only in brief supporting scenes. The film barely suggests his career as an artist and photographer and it fails to make clear his role in producing illustrations and photos for his wife's book. (His life is tangential, I suppose, but had this been a film about Julia (without Julie), there would have been some room to flesh things out.) That said, the Julia story is the best part of the movie.

Even so, Julie Powell's project deserved a fuller treatment. I was left with the impression that all the good stuff was in the blog and that we never got to read it. There was something unconvincing about the supporting cast, too. I never got the impression that these people were much interested in food or that Julie's cooking (and by extension Julia's) really moved them much. I would have liked to have seen this as a true foodie movie, conveying a sense of reverence for great food. We know that Julia Child had such a reverence. We don't know from the movie really what Julie felt about the food she was making. She comes across as shallow. Julia Child's reported remark at the end of the movie to the effect that Julie's attempt is frivolous is therefore hard to dismiss.

Having never seen the original blog, I can't say whether the impression given of Julie Powell is fair or not, but it doesn't help to hear Julie's husband simply tell her that Julia Child has misunderstood her. If that were really true (and it may be), shouldn't I (the audience) already know that by that stage of the film? I wanted to believe that cooking the classic cookbook cover to cover was more than a stunt to Julie, but the movie makes it hard to know. That seems a shame, because blogging with a purpose is an attractive idea and Julia Child's original dream of making Americans better cooks is as relevant today as it was then. Perhaps the only real value of Powell's cooking and blogging was personal--that it kept her sane (setting aside the effects of the fame it has brought her); perhaps Julie Powell finished her year feeling little different about cooking than when she began; perhaps getting through a truly important cookbook and absorbing such a cookbook are two different things. It's a shame that at the end of the movie we don't really know what Julie Powell accomplished. Maybe I'll read her book. Maybe I'll blog about it. Maybe I'll blog about reading every page of her book in 24 hours, maybe I'll...oh, never mind.

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