JULIE & JULIA (2009, directed by Nora Ephron, 123 minutes, U.S.)
IN THE LOOP (2009, directed by Armando Iannucci, 106 minutes, U.K.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
When one thinks of the Nora Ephron “brand” one tends to think of those cutesy romantic comedies with the button-nosed young Meg Ryan: You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally. They each have chatty, New York flavored scripts, sweetly yearning heroines and a crippling dose of syrupy wish-fulfilling finales. Directing Meg Ryan to act cute is like chocolate syrup on chocolate ice cream, it’s too much of a good thing, but by putting the big-boned squawking celebrity chef Julia Child at the center of the romance, and improbably Ephron gets the recipe just right.
It helps that this is Julia Child as embodied by the irrepressible Merle Streep and the romance this time is not for Tom Hanks but for food. Partially based on Child’s autobiography My Life In France, Ephron’s script follows Child as she transforms herself from idle diplomat’s wife to master French chef. It’s not a journey fraught with drama, there’s a bit of business involving her husband Paul’s (Stanley Tucci, himself a memorable chef in 1996’s Big Night) inquisition by McCarthy’s red-baiters and then there’s Child’s struggle to find a publisher, but what keeps the palette tickled is the performance of the ever-watchable Streep. It feels like we’ve seen her play every possible kind of role yet we’ve never seen her play a well-known celebrity before and with her blocky mannerisms, warbling croak and incessant good cheer somehow the classically beautiful Streep becomes that big awkward bird we all remember from those old PBS cooking shows.
Interspersed with Julia’s bon homie is the other half of this story, based on the blog-turned-book Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. Powell (played by Streep’s Doubt co-star Amy Adams) is also a newlywed seeking direction, which she finds when she devotes herself to cooking all 700-odd recipes in Child’s book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, an experience she documents on her blog (an activity made to sound so 2002).
It’s Adams who holds down the Meg Ryan cuteness side (with Mary Lynn Rajskub as the mandatory quirky friend). Adams’ cooked-up domestic squabbles seem forced, and her nervous bird-like personality can’t help but make her section of the film feel like a space holder for Streep’s larger-than-life reanimation. There’s nothing that Julie botches than Julia can’t fix though, making for a pleasantly light concoction that is nothing deeper than a good meal yet surprisingly delicious none the less.
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Not lacking for weight on the other hand is the satiric comedy from British TV writer Armando Iannucci, In The Loop. British cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander fumbles his rhetoric, with the phrase “War is unforeseeable” snowballing into a full court press to bring war to an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Every chance to untangle this gaffe only tangles things more until an army of bureaucratic nebbishes and bullies end up driving this war machine, each for their own craven reasons.
Shot in faux documentary style, In The Loop is in love with it own wit, loading and finally overloading its script with the sort of “no fighting in the war room” hypocrisy that oozes from each of its political sharpies. When Simon nervously concocts the phrase “climbing the mountain of conflict” his superior tells him he sounds like “a Nazi Julie Andrews”. It’s a great line from a film full of them, yet while the script zooms back and forth between London and D.C. its ear-numbing river of dialogue begs to raise the the film’s stakes and turn all this endless chat into physical action. It never does though, confining the action in the world of jabbering cubicle scorpions, each looking to sting. James Gandolfini, as the rare war-leery general breaks things up with his more naturalistic delivery but In The Loop ultimately exhausts us with its character’s unyielding verbal cynicism. What In the Loop needs is a few more pompous blowhards that actually believe in their rhetoric. No one here tries to hide what creeps they are and political grandstanders are much funnier when they are unaware that their delusions are on parade.