Real Is Better

There’s a scene in Julie and Julia that pretty much encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the movie (Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci being much that is right with it, though of course you can also throw in Paris in the 50s and a lot of food porn). Amy Adams and her unthreatening cute boyfriend sit on a couch and watch Dan Ackroyd’s wonderful Julia Child impression. The camera focuses on the TV with Dan in drag, then cuts to Amy and u.c.b. laughing, then cuts back to Dan, then back to them – what would be ad nauseum if the Ackroyd scene weren’t so short.

I mean….really? Watching cute people laughing at a video clip is…somehow furthering the story? Help me out here.

That a book and a movie based on someone following a how-to manual – albeit one of the greatest how-to manuals of all time – could be not only sold but bought by large numbers of people should give one serious pause. I mean, are we that low on ideas, that tolerant of other people’s narcissism that this is … it?

Perhaps the oddest thing about the movie is that the Julia Child/Meryl Streep sections are a delight, well-written, nicely plotted, superbly acted and production designed with loving, fanatical detail. Furthermore, there’s a real story there. You start to realize what Julia Child accomplished, the doors that she kicked down, and that there was, a long time ago, a place for a great writer to sing her own song without constantly fine-tuning it so it would have Maximum Marketability. Child had a clear mission – teach Americans French cooking – and cared about it enough to spend 8 years getting her cookbook perfect. She did it for love, not money or attention, but she was also a helluva writer. Persistence, dedication, and spouse support made it possible.

By juxtaposing this titanic talent with Amy Adams’ character, the Julie of the title, the movie does a pretty extraordinary job of showing 21st century pop culture for the fingernail-deep reflecting pool that it is. It’s so depressing. At one’s most generous, one can call Julie’s talent modest; quotes read directly from her blog (the way the script explains this Wacky New Internet Phenomenon is particularly annoying) show her writing to be about as thrilling as your average Woman’s Day editorial, or one of those annoying students who follow all the rules in order to assure a comfortable A with an occasional “nice metaphor!” notated in red in the margins. I could barely suppress a groan every time the director cut back to this story line, knowing Julie would make some charming utterance about butter being delicious, or how marvelous it is that cooking turns out nicely when your day at the office is crappy, or how yummy her first egg is. Ugh. It’s like when one of those completely self-absorbed women who are pregnant for the first time go on and on about the Novelty of It All. (At least one knows to avoid this woman at all costs once she actually gives birth.)

Had the casting director had the sense to get someone with a little bit of fire to play Julie, it might be less gooey, but to choose Amy Adams, who, like Meg Ryan before her, easily crosses the line from cute as a button to please can I swallow some acid to cut the sugar way too often, is some sort of sadistic genius at work. Christopher Plummer said that working with Julie Andrews was like being hit over the head with a valentine. Watching Amy Adams make yet another toast to her wonderful husband and Julia is more like being smothered with one. At least the hit on the head can be somewhat bracing.

It is only right that we find out that Julia Child did not have a high opinion of Julie Powell’s blog. It’s sort of marvelous, in fact, and at least the movie leaves this little tidbit in, though of course it’s coated in a smarmy “the Julia in your mind is what matters” speech. And it’s that glorious reality that got me to watch All That Jazz last night.

I admit, I am a fan of So You Think You Can Dance. The judges are rather horrifying, except for one bizarre yet wonderful night when Ellen deGeneres appeared as a guest. The solos are variously twirly, leapy, and vapid. But at least once per show there’s a beautifully danced routine that showcases some great young talent. Naturally, the equally regular mini-train wreck is even more fun.

However, I was hoping, not very sensibly, that the show’s take on the brilliant “Bye Bye Life” number at the end of All That Jazz would be something to remember. It was dreadful. Like the horrible Youtube video of Gwen Verdon doing a piece called Mexican Breakfast with a hip hop song overdubbed, this version completely missed Fosse’s musicality, which was extraordinary. His tight, hyper-contracted movements coupled with super-sinuous limb twisting always existed as one piece with the soundtrack. Bye Bye Life uses a cheesy electric piano and flute in a way indelibly connected with late 70s/early 80s movie music (watch Tootsie sometime), but in context of the Fosse movie, it has all the sinister edge of its first release, dating not a hair – until it gets butchered for the So You Think You Can Dance routine. In the hands of Tyce D’Orio, the routine goes from a jagged and unforgettable goodbye to nonsensical galumphing around a stage; the only thing saving it is the talent of the two young dancers going at it for all they’re worth.

I can only hope that they get exposed to genuine Fosse at some point. But they’ll have to go to Fosse movies for that. The show Fosse that ran on Broadway barely taps the man’s genius, and tries to make him almost cuddly. Instead, watch any of his four, practically perfect movies, including the non-dancing ones Star 80 and Lenny, with Cabaret rounding it out. Cut to the dances in Sweet Charity, which is otherwise a big pile of awful. Get your hands on the Pippin revival. It’s not a great show, and features one particularly bad number strikingly like the Airotica ballet, a dumb but necessary part of All That Jazz that encapsulates the worst of Fosse’s pretensions about the intersection of sex and dance. But throughout Pippin are extraordinary set pieces that are sharp, precise, witty, and beautiful.

There will, unfortunately, be a zillion more exercises like Julie/Julia and D’Orio/Fosse. Hopefully, the second half of the equations will continually shine even brighter from the comparisons.

One thought on “Real Is Better

  1. Pingback: I Am Awake | Nanarama

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