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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
August 16, 2009

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Julia & Julia, G.I. Joe, Long Story Short

Romantic comedies are the hardest kind of movie to make. Or at least to make well. And no one has a better track record than writer-director Nora Ephron.

Ephron began in 1983 with Silkwood, then adapted her own novel Heartburn for Mike Nichols to direct. Based on her divorce from a philandering husband, the story was personal -- and suffered from it. But I might have been biased -- both starred Meryl Streep, who annoyed me for twenty years as one of the most calculating, unnatural, and annoying actors ever.

You'll notice that my dislike her of acting style did not stop Streep from having an astonishing career, full of Oscars and hit movies. Still, I might never have fallen in love with Nora Ephron's movies if she had kept on with that starring-Meryl-Streep trend.

Instead, Ephron wrote When Harry Met Sally, which made both Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal into megastars, and followed it with the delightful My Blue Heaven, one of Steve Martin's good movies. Ephron got her first shot at directing with the more-or-less forgettable This Is My Life, but then came back with a classic: Sleepless in Seattle.

In a business not known for giving women a lot of chances to make movies, Ephron has had a remarkable string of hits. While Mixed Nuts and Michael had their good moments, it was You've Got Mail that cemented Ephron's place as one of the great writers and directors of romantic comedy.

Wait a minute. Come on. When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail -- that's three classics. But in between, she has a few pretty good movies, but she made the dreadful Bewitched, for heaven's sake! What kind of golden touch is that?

I'll tell you what: Comedy is the hardest thing to create in film, and romantic comedy is harder yet. To have made even one classic is remarkable, and Ephron wrote three and directed two.

So allow me, please, to suggest that she has just added one more to both columns. As writer and director of Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron has taken a strange and difficult concept and turned it into something funny and beautiful and wise.

The strange concept was to tell two stories at once: The beginning of Julia Child's life as a French chef, cookbook writer, and television personality, and the tale of a smug and self-obsessed would-be literary novelist, Julie Powell, who decided to cook every recipe in Julia Child's great cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and blog about it.

This film could have been as awful as The Hours, which also cut back and forth between multiple stories. Heaven knows the Julie Powell storyline invited the same kind of dreadful affectedness.

The New Yorker reviewer deplored the fact that all of Powell's acerbic political opinions were removed from the movie -- but that's one of the key decisions that made this movie work. The arty, literary, politically-correct, New-York-centered claptrap was either removed or made fun of (gently) in Ephron's brilliant script, so that instead of insulting and shutting out the vast audience that hungers for open-hearted storytelling, the movie invites us all in.

What Nora Ephron made was ostensibly a movie about cooking. Both title characters spend much of the movie up to their elbows in flour and eggs and poultry and beef, with the occasional suffering lobster just to make PETA miserable.

But the heart of the movie is a story of two marriages. No, let me be more specific: It's the story of two great husbands who are devoted to eccentric, powerful women and, without sacrificing an ounce of their own manhood, sustain them through careers that eventually outstrip any achievement of their own.

Julia Child, a giant of a woman (literally), was married to Paul (Stanley Tucci), a mid-level State Department functionary whose career was nearly destroyed by the mere fact that he once was assigned to serve in China.

(It's easy to forget that one of the worst actions of McCarthy and his ilk was to try to prosecute everyone who "lost China" to the Communists -- rather the way the Left is trying to prosecute lawyers who merely gave legal opinions on what constituted "torture" when interrogating terrorists. This movie makes it clear that witch-hunters always punish the innocent, because they make such easy targets.)

Through all his own career vicissitudes, Paul remains supportive of Julia Child's ambitious hobby. That is, cooking began as a hobby, but when, with two French collaborators, Julia Child gets involved in creating a French cookbook for "servantless American housewives," she becomes ambitious, and its apparent failure nearly breaks her heart.

Meanwhile, Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a novelist who couldn't finish her novel. When she hits on her Julia-Child's-cookbook-in-a-year project, husband Eric (Chris Messina) is supportive ... until the obsession drives a wedge between them. It's as if his wife is having an affair with a cookbook, and all the assignations are in his own kitchen!

This movie is funny almost all the time; it also is moving (I shed more than a few tears, as I did in Sleepless and You've Got Mail); and, above all, it is honest about what married love looks like. The Childs have a mature relationship when the movie begins; the Powells acquire one along the way.

Amy Adams is emerging as one of our finest actresses. From her first leading role in Enchanted and on through her tour-de-force in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, she already established herself as a master of broad comedy; in Julie & Julia she shows that she can handle subtlety, real emotion, and all the nuances that make the Julie Powell character both annoying and endearing at the same time. Not many actresses could have brought it off with such panache.

And under Nora Ephron's direction, Meryl Streep gives one of her most honest and affecting performances. It could have just been an imitation of Julia Child; instead, Streep shows us a full, well-rounded character that touches our hearts as well as our humor.

Is it possible? Could I be turning into a <shudder> Meryl Streep fan? I fear it may be so. Starting with a glimmer of honest acting in One True Thing, then skipping eight years to an over-the-top brilliant performance as the devil in The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep has now reached the grand total of three honest, powerful performances. (Plus a round of applause to her for her bravura song-and-dance role in Mamma Mia!) That's more good performances than I ever expected to see from her, and it leaves me optimistic for the future.

But the unsung -- or at least less-sung -- heroes of this movie are the husbands: Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina. Tucci has been giving brilliant character performances his whole career. This may be the first time he wasn't better than the movie he was in -- not because he was any worse, but because the whole movie came up to his level.

Chris Messina was actually in another Nora Ephron masterpiece -- You've Got Mail. But you don't remember him, because his role was "Fox Salesperson" and his whole job was to look vaguely well-meaning and incompetent. Since then he's been in a bunch of movies I chose not to see, so his performance here took me completely by surprise.

Not many actors can hold the screen with Amy Adams (in fact, till now there have been no survivors), but Messina -- with the help of director Ephron -- holds his own, and there is a moment on the street outside the apartment when Messina earns way more than he got paid for this gig.

Folks, Julie & Julia is not just a film for foodies. I never actually saw a single episode of Child's TV show (the only time I saw "her" was in Dan Aykroyd's brilliant Julia-Child-bleeds-to-death sketch on Saturday Night Live). Yes, I am an opinionated diner and a sometime cook myself, and certainly everything they showed about cooking was accurate and amusing.

But it's the people who count in this movie, as in all great romantic comedies. In a summer dominated by filthy comedies and unusually-stupid action movies, Julie & Julia is that rare thing: an island of moving, intelligent entertainment for grownups.

In fact, Julie & Julia joins Up on my very short list of movies in contention for best of the year.

Has there ever been a better date movie for married people who are still in love?

*

Speaking of unusually-stupid action movies, let me tell you how surprised I was by G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.

I went to the movie with my fifteen-year-old and her grandfather, who is over eighty. We all expected to enjoy mocking it, because our expectations were very, very low.

And, in fact, the movie has enough stupidity to entertain hecklers from beginning to end. My favorite idiocy: Two missiles are launched from the polar ice cap at the same time, traveling at the same speed. One is aimed at Moscow, the other at Washington, D.C. A pilot in a MACH-6 jet actually beats the first one to Moscow and shoots it out of the sky.

Then he flies to Washington DC, nearly 5,000 miles away, and gets there before the other missile. Admittedly, Washington is about 17 degrees of latitude farther from the north pole than Moscow, but puh-leeze ...

Here's the thing that surprised us all. In the midst of our groans at the many, many stupidities of the movie, including an absolutely hilarious view of how the government and the military function, along with extremely obvious and unconvincing computer graphics, there were actually some good performances and exciting action sequences.

So the result of it all was a movie that managed, somehow, to be entertaining.

By "entertaining" I mean that there were many times when I laughed out loud at moments when the filmmakers meant me to, and I actually liked and cared about some of the characters and relationships. Imagine that!

Channing Tatum brings off a better-than-hoped-for performances as the hero, Duke -- he's come a long way since playing "Boy in church scene" in War of the Worlds a mere four years ago. And while some of the better known actors phone in their performances, the hungry young kids seize their parts and wring every drop of pizzazz they can get out of them.

What can I say? Even though I lost IQ points watching this, I did not even consider getting up and walking out.

There has to be a special award, however, for any actor who has to say lines like, "Now your name will be 'Destro'! And I -- I am 'The Commander'" -- I'm not talking about an Oscar, I'm talking about the acting equivalent of a Purple Heart. But hey, it was great to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a grownup role -- sort of -- after his many years of good work as the kid on Third Rock from the Sun.

I hope you have something better to do than spend an evening of your life watching this movie. But if you need to get out of the house, and this is what's playing, and you've already seen the good movies, and you don't want to see something filthy or pretentious or boring, you can see G.I. Joe and enjoy it enough you won't want to ask for your money back.

*

Marianne Gingher has just come out with an anthology of "flash fiction" -- very short stories -- by "sixty-five of North Carolina's Finest Writers." Long Story Short is published by the University of North Carolina Press. It costs sixteen bucks, and it's a way better investment than watching, say, G.I. Joe.

The fact that I have a story in the anthology will convince some of the other writers in the book that "finest writers" is a dubious claim at best. After all, this is a collection of literary writers, and I write work that is (a) in a "genre" and (b) sometimes popular with a large audience of people who don't have degrees in English lit.

But you know what? Gingher really did a good job of reaching out to many different kinds of writers, and there is a full range of stories here. Of course there are some that look to me like pretentious obscurantist twaddle. But there are many more that are powerful and evocative -- surprisingly so, considering the brevity of the form.

Greensboro's own Fred Chappell, for instance, tells a moving story ("January") about a country boy trying to get his little sister to keep moving so she can get home before she freezes to death.

Melanie Sumner absolutely understood the form -- the short-short-short story. Her half-page "Marriage" is a masterpiece, a complete tale in half a page.

Marianne Gingher's own story, "The Thing," is a relentless depiction of the futility of communication between people when one of them fancies herself the infinite superior of the other.

And Angela Davis-Gardner's "The True Daughter" is an absolutely gorgeous evocation of the illusions that allow some people to live with relatives they don't actually like -- or even know.

There is such a wide range of material in this anthology that I can absolutely guarantee you that you will absolutely hate at least a couple of the stories here. But hey, they're all so short that you don't have to dwell with any of them very long. And I found dozens that I enjoyed, which in my experience is way above average.

At their best, these stories evoke families portraits, biographies, histories; each of them opens a window on a world and then shows you just enough for you to see and understand something important.


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