Published on: August 10, 2009by Kevin Coupe
“Julia & Julia” opened over the weekend, and offers an important business lesson. But maybe not the one you’d guess.
First of all, let’s get the basics out of the way. “Julie & Julia” is a charming, entertaining, utterly delightful movie about two women’s romances with food – especially butter.
“Julie & Julia” is writer/director Nora Ephron’s paean about Julia Child’s discovery and mastery of the art of French cooking in post World War II Paris. Child is played with sheer joy by Meryl Streep, who never descends into caricature; she captures the big emotions and small moments of Child’s outsized personality with equal affection, and she is pretty much matched at every turn by Stanley Tucci as Paul Child, Julia’s adoring diplomat husband.
The “Julie” of the title is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a would-be writer in 2002 New York City with what she views as a dead-end clerical job, who decides – urged on by her adoring husband Eric (Chris Messina) – to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Child’s landmark “Mastering The Art of French Cooking” in 365 days. And blog about it – because that’s what people do, and when they’re lucky, as she was, they get an audience.
The movie moves smoothly back and forth between the very different lives being led by Julia and Julie, focusing on how the pursuit of good food gave both of them purpose and direction. While some critics have suggested that the Julia Child stuff is much better and that the Julie Powell segments just distract from the more interesting store, I’m not sure that’s true – in fact, I think that it is juxtaposition of the two time periods that makes the whole movie work. Paris in the late forties was a very different place than New York in the early 21st century, which is made clear by the fact that Paul Child is at one point in his career investigated by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, while Julie Powell’s job is in the bureaucracy dealing with the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks. Each period puts the other one is sharp relief, and that makes the movie better.
“Julie & Julia” isn’t a perfect movie; for example, it mentions that Julia Child didn’t think much of Julie Powell’s endeavor, but doesn’t really go into why. (One can imagine that Julia Child, then in her late eighties, likely didn’t get the whole blogging culture.) And it isn’t a movie that will appeal to everyone – the target audience is an older demographic, and I noticed at the Saturday night show I attended that there were a lot more canes, walkers and wheelchairs than one normally sees at the movies. (I felt younger just by virtue of being ambulatory. But people older than 40 are hungry for solid entertainment, and want something other than “Transformers” and “GI Joe.”)
Now, there has been a lot of discussion about whether this movie can awaken in the US public some sort of renewed interest in fresh food and cooking. Go online, and you can find everything from Julia Child devotees criticizing Julie Powell for not being worthy of the great woman’s mantle, to people suggesting that entities such as the Food Network suddenly are going to adopt a more Julia Child-like approach to cooking programs (more food, less celebrity and sex appeal).
All of which is just silly. “Julie & Julia” is just a movie, and it would be highly unusual for even as entertaining a movie as this one to have that kind of cultural impact. Emeril Lagasse isn’t suddenly going to stop shouting ”Bam!,” Giada De Laurentiis isn’t going to gain 40 pounds (thank goodness!), and we’re not all suddenly going to get a yen for deboning ducks, or for making Child’s famous boeuf bourguignon. (I’m pretty sure about this last part because the recipe calls for a six-ounce chunk of bacon and instructs the cook to “remove rind and cut bacon into lardons.” For most of us, that would be enough dissuasion …the first thing we’d have to do is figure out what the hell a lardon is.) Wishing we could go back to a simpler time, when we were less time-constrained and more focused on fresh foods rather than pre-packaged processed foods won’t make it so.
What’s interesting, if you pay attention to the arguments and debates, is that they are about more than just food. There is all this discussion back and forth about organic vs. natural vs. local, about who is purer and better, about who has the right motivations. (The real Julie Powell has made it easier for some self-righteous critics; after the events portrayed in the movie, she cheated on her husband, worked on another book, and is described on numerous sites as a not entirely pleasant functional alcoholic.)
It is all about superiority and the sort of annoying and sanctimonious posturing that sometimes takes place among foodies. The point, it seems to me, ought to be that there are tons of options out there and that it is up to people to make informed decisions about what suits their lives and interests. I’m not sure there is a moral or ethical high ground to preferring local beers, Oregon Pinot Noirs, heirloom tomatoes, organic apples, or grass-fed natural beef to other kinds of products. Julia Child showed one way to live your life, and Julie Powell took her up on the challenge…but it certainly isn’t the only way. One of the great opportunities that exist for many food stores is the chance to educate consumers about the possibilities – not because of some ethical dictate, but because it is, quite simply, good business.
The business lesson that really should be taken from “Julie & Julia” is the way that Julia Child identified an opportunity – that in the post World War II era, women were food-challenged to a great degree and that if made accessible to them, French cooking could change their lives in the same way that it changed hers. And she pursued it with a singular passion – writing the cookbook with two collaborators in a number of countries on two continents, relying on carbon copies and snail mail to communicate.
In many ways, that’s exactly what Julie Powell did, though she had the advantage of the Internet to make her communication processes a lot easier. She loved cooking and was a frustrated writer…so she put the pieces together and created – out of passion – a business opportunity.
That’s the magic formula, it seems to me. When passion is added to opportunity, and is multiplied by dedication and focus, that’s the way to create a successful enterprise, whether it is a retail store, a packaged product, or a book. Or even, when you think about it, a good and entertaining movie. Which “Julie & Julia” is.
- KC's View: