Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Streep & Streep: Which Of Her Movies This Year Is Actually The More Honest Portrayal of Middle Aged Love?

By Lars Trodson

An online movie critic described a recent Meryl Streep movie as "refreshingly mature, funny and endearing with a terrific cast and razor sharp dialogue. Meryl Streep sizzles in a sexy, bold and honest performance. It’s an intelligent American romcom with a very French sensibility."

I realized this could have been either Meryl Streep movie released in 2009: "Julie & Julia" or "It's Complicated", although the critic was describing the latter.

The movies bear more similarities than featuring Ms. Streep. Both films were written and directed by women: "Julie & Julia" is a Nora Ephron film and "It's Complicated" is by Nancy Meyers. Both lead characters are foodies: Julia is of course Julia Child and Jane Adler in "It's Complicated" runs a bakery and she seduces her men partly through her work in the kitchen.

I think the most important connection, though, is that both films portray lusty middle aged marriages. Surprisingly, "It's Complicated" has gotten almost all the attention on this subject, but "Julie & Julia" has a much more honest, nuanced and touching portrait of middle aged love than "It's Complicated" even tried to achieve.

"It's Complicated" has gotten such a wave of press you would think that Meyers invented the subject of middle aged love (she even landed on the cover of a recent "New York Times Magazine"), but since her movie is purportedly about that topic it's what people focus on. The ostensible subject of "Julie & Julia" is food, except that it really is also about the hard task of sustaining a good marriage while people work and have friends and family they need to contend with.

The word "work" is important here because, for one thing, Paul and Julia Child actually work. Paul is an American attache living in Paris, and although Julia at first is adrift looking for something to do, she soon pours her heart and hard work into writing the French cookbook that made her famous. Paul Child, played by the sublime Stanley Tucci (one of those actors who seems incapable of a bad performance, and who is also reunited with Streep after "The Devil Wears Prada"), is run all over Europe by the American government, and the film even takes a break to show us that he was investigated during the McCarthy years.

Ephron takes the time to show us how this impacts Julia (and her book project) and we get a very real sense of the fact that while living in Paris might certainly have been romantic, maybe Berlin and Oslo and other places were not.

In Nancy Meyers' "It's Complicated", Streep's Jane Adler is seen running the bakery one day (it's fun!), but not much else happens there except when she cooks late-night croissants with Steve Martin. Adler's work life is decidedly uncomplicated, and that may be part of the dream-like appeal of Meyers' movie -- she's wiped away all the shadows and dark spots (almost literally -- her film looks so polished at times the glint hurts the eyes).

In "Julie & Julia", we get introduced to Julia Child first, and we're delighted not only because this is Streep firing once again on all cylinders, but Julia Child seems guileless, slightly goofy, and positively infectious.

But anybody who has any memory or knowledge of Julia Child will not immediately think of her as sexy, and we suddenly, in one great scene, realize this was our problem and not hers. Paul Child comes home from work and finds Julia struggling to make sense of a cookbook written in French. He translates a little for her, then they start to kiss, and soon they have at it.

My first reaction was "Julia Child had a sex life!", but then I realized , Christ, I'm 50 years old and certainly no Robert Redford, people probably think the same of me! But this is how people live. It may seem incongruous that a movie like "Julie & Julia" could give someone like me a boost, but it did.

As I looked over the reviews for "Julie & Julia" I saw that the critics gave scant attention to the fact that the Julia Child scenes were both touching and sexy, even though it's right out front. Paul and Julia Child had a long and loving marriage, and it seems far more real than anything Streep and Alec Baldwin had in "It's Complicated" (which also could have been the title of "Julie & Julia", if you think about it).

I got no such boost from "It's Complicated", even though I found it funny. Part of it was that Meyers, in the fourth film she has written and directed, seems already to be borrowing from herself. "It's Complicated" seems a mirror image of her "Something's Gotta Give." In that movie, middle-aged Diane Keaton also had two men pursuing her -- Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves -- and she is chronically disappointed in how men treat her, much in the same way that Jane Adler is disappointed in how the men in her life are treating her.

While it is Nicholson who ends up in the hospital with a heart condition after sex in "Something's Gotta Give", Baldwin has his heart episode before he has sex in "It's Complicated."

All this reminded me of a scene from Orson Welles' "The Other Side Of the Wind" that is floating around on the Internet. In that scene, the movie director played by John Huston says, "It is perfectly all right to steal from each other, but what we must never do is steal from ourselves."

It must have been a little disconcerting for Ephron to see Meyers on the cover of the "New York Times Magazine", if only because it made it seem as though Meyers was inventing the idea that a movie could show romance between anyone over 20. Ephron's movies may be about love and romance, but they never center on the very young. Think "Michael" or "Sleepless in Seattle" or "You've Got Mail."

And they are not any more or less artificial than Meyers' films, quite frankly. While Meyers may be aiming for a more timeless sensibility in her films (they are certainly shinier), Ephron has always seemed to tag her stories around the latest fad.

This may be because she was a journalist, but when angels were all the rage, she made "Michael" with John Travolta, when email was new and exciting, she made "You've Got Mail" with Hanks and Meg Ryan, and "Julie & Julia" I'm sure came about in part because we have become a nation obsessed with food, one way or the other.

But the talk of food, and the split story between Julia Child and Julie Powell overwhelmed the more human element of Ephron's film, and that was the love story between Paul and Julia Child (he apparently took the photos of the food for the book). I have no idea what their real lives were like (I have some idea of what Julie Powell is like, or at least what I think she is like, after reading her current blog), but in the end it doesn't matter.

Streep and Tucci shine as Paul and Julia Child, and the pictures that Ephron drew of their marriage are as loving and sexy as anything you'll see, including what is presented in "It's Complicated."

On the subject of love and sex after the age of 40, Meyers' movie is, if you will excuse me, nouvelle cuisine, and Ephron's is, quite happily, cuisine classique.