Welcome to FrockTalk, the web’s only costume-based movie review site. The goal of Frocktalk is to shed light on the magnificent artistry of costume design in motion pictures. Reviews on this site are written by working costume designers in the entertainment industry – people who know, better than anyone, what it takes to make it all happen. The focus of FrockTalk is not to comment on the big flashy costume dramas, but to call attention to the seemingly ordinary costume design work in film that silently and persuasively moves the audience toward understanding the characters. Costume design for motion pictures is an art form that deserves more recognition than it usually gets. Fancy, pretty costumes do not always equal effective, appropriate costumes. The art of the costume is in letting the audience know who the character is, before the actor even has a chance to open his mouth. Read on, and enjoy. ** CAUTION: ALL REVIEWS CONTAIN SPOILERS! **

Julie and Julia


Review Date: 8-16-09
Release Date: 8-7-09
Runtime: 123 min.
Period: Contemporary (2002) and 1949 France – 1961 Connecticut
Costume Designer:  Ann Roth

I love Stanely Tucci.  I went out to dinner with a friend of mine last week, and upon hearing that we had both recently seen Julie and Julia, we exclaimed at the same time, “I love Stanley Tucci!!!”  This is a movie about food goddess Julia Child (Meryl Streep), cubicle mouse Julie Powell (Amy Adams), and the parallels between the lives of the legend and the frustrated woman who wants to be her.  Streep and Adams have garnered rave reviews for their work in this film, and they handily deserve the attention.  I thought the movie was charming and fantastic.  However, I stick by my love of Stanley Tucci – he is an understated hero in this film, and I’ll tell you why.

Oh yes, and Ann Roth did the costumes, so you know already know that they are brilliant.

The film tells two stories – the first, of Julia Child’s time in Paris, 1949.  Her husband is a diplomat, stationed there, and Julia soon tires of the boring housewife set.  She sets off to try new hobbies, among them millinery and cooking.  Failing millinery and finding the cooking course not challenging enough, Julia enrolls in Le Cordon Bleu’s professional cooking course.  The only woman, Child soon proves to be fearless and determined in the kitchen, holding her own alongside the men.

In New York City, 2002, government drone Julie Powell is wasting away in a cubicle.  A once-aspiring and promising writer, Powell has abandoned her dreams and made a habit of settling.  Her more successful friends make Julie seem like a failure, and when she hears about the new world of “blogging”, she decides that she should try it.  At the suggestion of her husband, she starts a food blog.  Her goal: tackle all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one calendar year, and write about all of it, sharing her experiences with anyone who will listen on the internet.

Thus, the set-up, and the parallel.  Child looks for a diversion in her boring life, and Powell looks for inspiration in hers.

We see Child meet Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (who would become her co-authors for Mastering the Art of French Cooking), and we watch as they develop recipes and put the book together.  We watch as Powell kills a lobster.  We meet Child’s sister Dorothy when she visits Paris, falls in love, gets married, and eventually becomes pregnant (to the delight and ultimate frustration of Julia).  We see Powell’s blog become increasingly popular.  We see Julia Child’s husband being investigated for espionage.  We see Powell get into a huge fight with her husband (more on this later).  We see the Childs move to Oslo.  We see the Powells host a renowned food writer for dinner.  We see Julia Childs’ book finally get published.  We learn that the aging Julia Child does not approve of Julie Powell’s blog.   We see Julie Powell finally bone and truss a duck; her year of writing is completed, and she has been deluged by calls from agents, magazines and publishers.  Powell visits the Smithsonian and leaves a pound of butter at the altar of Julia Child’s recreated kitchen.  The movie ends with the 1961 Julia Child receiving her newly published book in the mail.  The end.

Meryl Streep is simply seamless, as usual.  You almost take it for granted how good she is, at this point.  Her relationship with her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) is inspired – it’s respectful, loving, spontaneous, truthful – and we rarely, if ever, see that at the movies.  It was a delight to see love like this on the screen, especially for two people who found each other later in life.  Paul never patronizes his wife or her pursuit of something meaningful in life.  Keep in mind, this was 1949 – Paul Child would have been the exception to the rule, being so supportive and taking her interests to heart.  Men back then were not raised to take women very seriously!  So, it is remarkable that someone like him, with such an elite, highly respected job position, would look at his wife in equal terms.  Julia Child proved to be his equal and then some, in the end.  It was perhaps Paul’s genuine affection for his wife that helped her to achieve her personal goals as well.

Julie and Eric Powell’s relationship is less rosy.  There seems to be much more push-pull in their relationship; change is taken on begrudgingly, and the relationship seems to lack the true admiration and respect we see in the Childs’ marriage.

One thing that made me want to pull my hair out was the fight.  The fight between Julie and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) did not make much sense at all.  He calls her “self-involved” – but there is no point of reference for knowing what “self-involved” is in that relationship.  We haven’t spent enough time getting to know his character to even know what he does for a living, nevermind why he gets so mad at Julie.  He storms out of the house in a huff like a child, and stays overnight at his office, where we finally find out that he is a writer for a magazine about archaeology.  If HE couldn’t understand Julie’s need to find purpose through her blog, then who could?  This fight was baseless, and it came off as absurd plot-pushing.  If there had been one scene of him, just one, where he was talking to a buddy, telling him about how hard it’s been on him, or how tired he was of his wife’s food and cooking passion, or something, maybe the fight would have been more motivated.  But as the movie is, the fight comes from the clear blue sky.  And besides, who is he to complain, eating fabulous French food every single night?!

Further, the fight scene is followed by a very nearly absurd scene where Julie Powell calls herself a “bitch”, and asks for reinforcement of this from her friend Sara (Mary Lynn Rajskub).  Amy Adams’ version of Julie Powell is NOT a bitch, so this scene seemed also to be completely out of place.  Maybe there were parts of the movie that were left on the editing room floor… but the fight and its aftermath was truly jarring.  These scenes stick out to me because the rest of the film was smooth and delicate as a fresh crème patissiere.

Update: it’s been bugging me all night, having written about the fight and the “bitch” scene.  What bothers me is that the portrayal of Julie is so fully realized by Adams, so complete, the “bitch” scene is totally unnecessary.  Julie Powell may have been, in real life, a bitch, but Adams’ portrayal of Powell is so sweet and heartfelt – Adams imbues her with a vulnerability that is palpable and on the surface – to hear her refer to herself as a bitch feels like another plot-pushing device.  But here’s the deal – since last night, I have also discovered that Powell has written another book, entitled Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession, in which she cheats on her husband (among other things).  So it makes me wonder…  Julie Powell might be a bitch, but Amy Adams’ Julie Powell is decidedly not, and for that I am glad.  Adams makes Powell sympathetic, makes the audience care about her, root for her, feel for her.  Would we, in real life, feel the same about Julie Powell’s Julie Powell?  After learning about Cleaving (which, by the way, isn’t even out yet) the “bitch” scene takes on new meaning. We might not care much for Julie Powell’s Julie Powell.  I am really glad we have Adams’ performance to lead us through the film, “bitch” scene or no, because she makes a compelling case for Powell’s plight, and she makes her ambition palatable.

As for the costumes, the parallels start slowly and build between the two women.  Streep arrives in Paris wearing a plaid suit and a neat little hat.  Always wearing pearls, she graduates to sweater sets, then to the white chef costume of Le Cordon Bleu, then to more casual dress shirts (a particularly memorable one is a robin’s egg blue shirt with an almost shiny finish, ¾ sleeves) and white bistro apron, to finally navy-blue bistro aprons.  This is a woman of a privileged class, and her costumes reflect as much.  There is much repeating of costumes pieces, which I LOVE, because it is realistic.  Julia Child always seems to be comfortable, huggable, and she looks like she smells good.  It’s a total-look thing that was achieved – hair, makeup, costume, actor – everyone had a hand in breathing life into Julia Child.  It was magnificent.

Julie Powell starts the film in sneakers, jeans, t-shirt, plaid shirt tied at her waist, and a teeny tiny gold wedding ring.  Julie is moving in to an apartment over a pizzeria in Queens with her husband.  Immediately, we get it: no money.  She goes to work in mundane, lower-scale worker bee clothing, sweater tied around her waist, glasses perched on her face, obscuring it somewhat.  When she first starts cooking, Julie wears vintage half-aprons (two of them that I remember) in prints.  Julie graduates, slowly, into sweater sets, little skirts, and finally, she gets a pearl necklace for her birthday.  She wears the pearls consistently for the rest of the film.  After the pearls appear, we see a shift toward more vintage-looking pieces in her costumes, until she is wearing a crisp dress shirt, pearls and a navy-blue bistro apron when she serves dinner to the food writer.  Just like Julia.

In the end, Julie hosts a dinner party to celebrate the end of her yearlong endeavor, presenting the perfectly cooked and trussed duck to her husband and friends.  Julie walks out on to the rooftop carrying the duck in a white eyelet 1950s-cut dress that would have been the envy of any mid-century housewife.  It’s a beautiful image, and a great tribute to Julia Child’s ability to empower women to try something different and to stretch their comfort zones.  The use of the 1950s dress reminds us that it all began with the idea of empowering the mid-century servantless cook.

The costumes for Paul Child were remarkable as well.  Always stylish, Paul wore sleek business suits at work, and beautiful Banlon-style short-sleeved sweaters, pleated trousers, hats, sunglasses, when not at work.  He looked really elegant while at the same time accessible – not snobbish or fashiony – it’s a very hard thing to do!  I thought that Tucci’s performance was amazing, because here you have him, in almost every scene in which he appears, face-to-face with one of cinema’s grandest of grande dames, and he never feels overshadowed.  Completely invested in this role, Tucci becomes Paul Child; there is never a hint of dishonesty in the character.  See for yourself – I think he’s flawless in this film.  He is the quiet hero of this movie!!

The other roles (ie: Dorothy, Beck and Bertholle) were beautifully costumed as well.  There was a clear distinction between the Americans in Paris, and the Parisians.  The difference was in the smallest detail – a ring, a hat, the shoes – but it was significant.  Dorothy’s wedding (in Pasadena, CA) was lovely.  Every I was dotted, every T crossed.  Since these were older people getting married, the wedding dress was subdued, champagne-colored with a wrap, no veil.  Her stuffy, elderly Republican father wears a wool suit, mother wears a fur.  Every guest looked elegant, costumed to perfection.

I think this movie is sincerely charming and I think it’s going to have legs for a long time.  Whereas the summer blockbusters will explode into theaters and disappear just as quickly, I think Julie and Julia is liable to stick around a lot longer.  It is a sweet film that will have great appeal to a wide audience, not just to women, and not just to those over fifty.  It’s a story to which many people will be able to relate, and I hope it does well at the box office.  It’s nice to see a movie about women taking charge of their lives.  Hopefully, the success of this film will inspire studios to make more films, similarly themed!

If the Barnes and Noble next door to my theater is any indication, they will also be selling quite a lot of Mastering the Art of French Cooking cookbooks, as well, which just might be good for everyone!!  Enjoy and (because I can’t resist), Bon Appétit!!

— KMB

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