Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Two Films About Finding Your Passion

On Saturday evening, I had a free Redbox number to rent a DVD. I couldn't decide between Julie and Julia or My Life in Ruins. When I punched my selection, I realized too late that I forgot to put in the code for my free rental. So, I was more careful the next time and ended up with a double feature for Saturday night.

I watched My Life in Ruins first, because I had low expectations for this film and wanted to savor the best for last. This post will review both films, but I'm writing in the opposite order that I saw the films. Julie and Julia is a film that I almost saw in theaters this past summer (I ended up seeing The Hurt Locker instead). I'm a fan of Meryl Streep because of her incredible ability to disappear into a role. She is probably the most versatile actress in Hollywood, with an impressive track record. Her best role, though, has to be Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She played the boss from hell so perfectly. This time, she played an actual person, famous chef Julia Childs.

The interesting thing about this film is that writer / director Nora Ephron blended two books into one movie. Most of it is based on thirtysomething blogger Julie Powell. Unhappy with her cubicle job taking abuse from people with insurance claims about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, she decides to take on the challenge of cooking her way through all five hundred and some recipes in Julia Childs' groundbreaking cookbook: Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogging about it with a time limit of one year. Eventually, her blog gets noticed by the right people and she lands her long sought book contract (she's a failed novelist). This part intrigued me for obvious reasons. I'd love for someone to offer me a book contract after reading my blog...though my novel has nothing to do with my blog.

Anyhow, other than that bit of wishful thinking, I did not find Julie to be an interesting character. She freaks out too much about being "perfect" in cooking, while her idol Julia Childs wouldn't sweat it at all. Julia looks like she has fun cooking and it should be fun. No one put a gun to Julie's head to make her cook every recipe in Childs' cookbook or blog about it!

The most interesting part of the movie is the Julia Childs portion. I would have preferred a whole movie biopic on her, though I have to admit that the angle is creative and different. I know very little about Julia Childs, other than she is tall and has a unique voice and way of talking. She's funny and fun to be around. She takes to cooking with enthusiastic gusto. I'm certain that one could taste the love in her appetizing meals. Apparently, she kind of fell into cooking by accident. She was a housewife to an American diplomat in post-World War II Paris, who fell in love with the food and wanted to learn how to cook them for herself. She's the only female enrolled at the gastronomique school and finds her passion. Eventually, she takes on the enormous task of creating a comprehensive cookbook on French dishes for English readers because none existed at that point. This project takes years. In the meantime, her husband is called back to the U.S. to answer to a McCarthy inquiry into their politics during the red scare era. They transfer around posts in Marseilles and Germany, then back to Paris and eventually re-settling back in the States at Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Pinning the duck is perhaps her most challenging recipe, that is enough to intimidate poor Julie Powell. Childs makes it look easy. Of course, watching this film only made me hungry and curious to try some of the recipes. However, I don't have her cookbook and not sure how many non-meat selections she features. I'll have to go by a bookstore and browse through her cookbook to see what interesting recipes she included. No duck for me, though.

Amy Adams plays the neurotic Julie Powell, who poses next to a picture of the legendary Julie Childs (Meryl Streep) at the end of the film. Its amazing to reflect on how some person's self-challenge and blog led to a book contract and a movie. In the film, Powell freaks out when a reporter mentioned that Childs had heard about her blog challenge and did not like it one bit. Childs passed away sometime this decade, though, so I don't know what she really thought of Powell's blog. If anything, she should be flattered that her monumental cookbook has inspired someone of our generation. There are a lot of cookbook options out there. That Julia Childs' "magnum opus" (as she called it in the film) is still considered the standard-bearer says something about her and what she achieved in her life. This film is an excellent tribute to her passion. Now, let's eat! Bon appetite!

Speaking of passion, My Life in Ruins, is about an American woman (presumably of Greek ancestry) who runs away to Greece to become a university professor. However, when she failed to find a job in academia, she ends up being a tourguide for groups of cliched tourists from around the world who sign up for a basic bus tour of Greece. She views this job as a low point in her career and complained to her boss that she sees the same "type" over and over. Funnier, yet, she points them out: the drunken Australians, the man-crazy divorcees, the obnoxious and loud Americans, the super slow old couple, the bored and detached teenager, and "the funny guy" (or the guy who thinks he's funnier than he really is). She tells her boss that she wants "the nice Canadians" for once. Because she gets poor reviews from the tourists, she gets the problem tourists, while the smarmy Nico gets the higher class of tourists (particularly the coveted Canadians!).

I did not expect much from this film, because it looked like a lame comedy with jokes that would fall flat. So why watch it, you're probably wondering. Well...the biggest draw for me was that Greece plays a starring role. That was worth seeing in a film, because you don't often see a film set in Greece. I also thought this might be a cheap knock-off on the excellent Under the Tuscan Sun. There are similarities: American woman runs off to a European country to find a new life. Both feature bus tours and plenty of awesome scenery. Italy and Greece are definitely worthy of a travelogue motion picture.

Nia Vardalos is an actual Greek American who scored a huge hit earlier this decade with the surprising My Big, Fat Greek Wedding (full disclosure: I did not like that film). That film came from out of nowhere and earned well over $200 million at the box office. It was not on anyone's radar to even be the huge hit it became. I don't know what happened to her career in the years between that film and this one, but Nia is a beautiful actress. Its good to see her headlining another film with a Greek theme.

What surprised me about My Life in Ruins was that there were quite a few laugh out loud moments. Its hard to find a comedy for me that delivers big time laughs. Some that I expect to be funny are only mildly so (I Love You Man, The Hangover), while others I think might be stupid are actually gut-busting hilarious (The 40 Year Old Virgin). This one is closer to the latter. I love a good laugh and this film gave me plenty. Maybe its because I've been to Greece (okay, just the island of Corfu) and have an interest in ancient Greek history. I loved seeing the Acropolis, Mount Olympus, and especially Delphi (site of the famous Oracle from the days of Socrates). There are spiritual tours that visit Delphi, but its way out of my price range.

I've been on a few bus tours since my adolescence (when my family lived in Germany). They are a good "intro" to a foreign country, though you don't get much free time and you're herded from place to place like sheep. Also, some historical sites are only worth a "driveby" instead of an actual stop. What you do get is a lot of factoids that can run on the dry and boring side, particularly for people who don't find history fascinating. In 1997, I did a bus tour of Berlin and the tourguide gave a basic rundown of the Prussian kings and emperors. It was a lot of Fredericks, Wilhelms, and Frederick-Wilhelms. Other people's genealogy is not very interesting at all. In fact, its the most boring parts of the Holy Bible. I prefer an overarching storyline...the big picture, not a list of names and dates. Highlighting the unusual or the obscure is more interesting than a mere recitation of genealogy.

In a spoof of this dry history, Nia's character decides to spice things up at the advice of the obnoxious funny guy (played by Richard Dreyfuss). Her telling of the Oracle at Delphi is hilarious and leads to a funny situation. No spoiler here, you'll just have to watch it for yourself.

Her tour group includes a kleptomaniac older woman, an IHOP businessman who bores dates with his detailed knowledge of waffles and syrups, an overweight college student who becomes a victim of a mean prank by Nico, an incompehensible and drunk Aussie couple, an obnoxious American couple (who speak loud to foreigners they think don't understand English), and a wealthy couple with a daughter who is bored the whole time. Nico is popular with his group, because he skips the history and delivers the people to the souvenir shops and daily ice cream (in fact, those who have traveled Europe extensively can attest to the importance ice cream plays in one's dessert of choice after every single meal).

Despite the cliches and sometimes cheap laughs, this movie has heart. Its about finding one's "kefi" (the Greek word for "passion"). By the end, you grow to love the group, quirks and all. Its a likable comedy, far better than I thought it would be. I had doubts early on when the bus driver reveals his name to the tourists. This type of humour aimed pretty low (the kind of humour children find amusing), so I didn't expect much after that, but I was pleasantly surprised. Certainly, it could have been even better. It failed to connect with audiences in theaters this summer, and with a better storyline, it might have been a hit. However, I have to give props to any movie that can help restore my image of Greece after the trifling disaster known as Mamma Mia! Especially when it delivered some of the biggest laughs I've seen in a movie this year. Anything (movie, show, person) that can make me laugh earns my loyalty and praise. Laughing is always good for the soul, however it comes.

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