Saturday, February 6, 2010

You Are What You Eat (Food, Inc. and Julie & Julia)

Food, Inc., this year's likely Oscar winner for Best Documentary, addresses a hot-button topic in a relatively low-key manner. Writer-producer-director Mark Kenner appears onscreen at infrequent intervals, describing himself at the start as an investigative reporter by nature; but his style is the opposite of the overbearing muckraker persona of Michael Moore. Kenner is softspokenly dogged in penetrating the veil of American food production and illustrating how it affects our quality of life. And while he incorporates a few flashy graphics here and there, they don't alienate the viewer (this one, at least) in the manner of Alex Gibney's Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. Kenner's instincts are correct that his subject doesn't need an assist. It's pertinent and timely enough to speak for itself.

The doc's premise is simple yet far-reaching: the ostensible variety in your local grocery store is an illusion. The iconic solitary farmer -- a myth still perpetuated in the branding of many products -- has been replaced by no more than a handful of major corporations manufacturing an overwhelming percentage of our food. Intrigued by the secrecy behind such a large-scale industry, Kenner follows several disparate strands to what he calls "the same cornfield in Iowa," where he learns that corn has become a staple in a surprising number of products, that conditions for livestock are appalling, that cutting corners has led to an alarming rise in E. coli outbreaks and diabetic infections, and that the Clinton and Bush administrations have put in charge of regulatory agencies like the FDA many of the same fat cats who run the food industry.

Fahrenheit 9/11 wove a tangled web with an uneven degree of success. In truth, I think Michael Moore has become an underrated filmmaker: the opening credit sequence of that film, where politicos are caught as their true selves right before the cameras roll, is one of the finest pieces of ominous foreshadowing and theme-establishing that I've ever seen. Yet the connections Moore draws, while individually intriguing, are often tenuous, linked only by his insinuating presence. In Food, Inc., Kenner brings together his thesis much more persuasively. It's one thing to "know," in the abstract, how poorly animals-up-for-slaughter are treated; it's quite another to see chickens so overfed they can't sit up straight, or a cow with something that looks like a gas canister on its side which, when popped open, reveals a hole deep enough for the contents of its stomach to be examined.

I feel unfit for examining too closely the possibly hypocritical stance behind arguing for humane conditions for animals many of us eat since, as a carnivore, it's a hypocrisy I share. I feel more certain in stating that the movie's overt advocacy for change is earned. Kenner errs only in overplaying the tragedy of a child whose death was the result of eating a toxic hamburger. It's essential to apply a human face to the consequences of doing nothing, but the implication that the boy's mother (a Republican) is paying for her political sins smacks of Moore and Gibney's stock tactics, no matter how unintended. Overall Food, Inc. makes it clear -- not least of which via the stirring strains of Bruce Springsteen's "This Land is Your Land" over the closing credits -- that a steady diet of complacency hits all of us where we live.

Nora Ephron's Julie & Julia, her first movie not to suck in nearly twenty years, returns the writer-director to a plot device that can no longer be assumed a gimmick but rather a personal interest, if not outright obsession. Ephron's biggest hits -- You've Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle -- were predicated on keeping its lovers apart physically and/or emotionally. Julie & Julia goes a step further by featuring a pair of soul mates separated by time, yet connected by a shared passion for fine cuisine.

Based on the book based on the blog by Julie Powell, Ephron's script is a surprising model of structure, linking its parallel storylines via thematic echoes. Julie Powell (Amy Adams) and Julia Child (Meryl Streep) each inhabit eras of cataclysmic change (respectively, post-9/11 New York City and post-World-War-II Paris). Both are disaffected wives of loving husbands (Chris Messina's Eric Powell and Stanley Tucci's Paul Child) who turn to cooking and then writing about cooking as a means of channeling their creative impulses. Julia learns how to cook from the finest chef in Gay Paree, and her seminal tome How to Master French Cooking becomes the impetus for Julie's goal to make every meal in Child's book, which she chronicles in an online blog over the course of a year.

It's tempting to overpraise Julie & Julia for not stinking up the joint a la Bewitched, Hanging Up, Lucky Numbers, and other Ephron-helmed boondoggles, so let me add a dash of Julia Child's perfectionism by stating that it's still not as good as it could have been. Ephron is a vexing case -- a filmmaker of sickly-sweet surfaces who, in reality, has acid wit in her veins. Her best film, the Rob Reiner directed When Harry Met Sally, holds up surprisingly well, a terrific script and Barry Sonnenfeld's richly textured images overcoming Meg Ryan's relentless cutie-pieisms. Ephron makes similarly poor use of Amy Adams, whom I found grating for the first time onscreen. Adams, a lively charmer ever since her shy brace-face grin in Catch Me if You Can, looks stunning in Julie & Julia, yet she overplays Julie's discontent enough that it curdles into whininess. (It's not good when the heroine calls herself a bitch and you nod in agreement.)

At least Ephron is wise enough to stay out of Meryl Streep's way. It's the only course of action at this point in her career, the most remarkable run of performances by an actress whom I've never believed in for a second. That's not exactly true: the scene in Adaptation where Streep, lying in bed, hopelessly stoned, admiring her own toes, still offers the most natural charm she's ever conveyed in a movie. Her Julia Child is, as usual, all external sheen, over-the-top enthusiasm and voluble accent fied in place. She's fun to watch, especially with Tucci, with whom she had great chemistry in The Devil Wears Prada and are even better together here (even with a typical groaner of an Ephron moment, when the too-old-for-children Julia gazes longingly at someone else's baby). Credit Streep's considerable gifts and savvy role selection with keeping herself relevant for over thirty years in a business where most actresses are quickly exploited and unceremoniously abandoned; she's never been down and out long enough to need a "comeback." Unlike Robert De Niro, her co-star from The Deer Hunter (back when both were dramatic heavyweights, seemingly so long ago), Streep's recent foray into comedy seems a snug fit for her abilities, even when styled liked overcooked ham.


Jason Bellamy said...

Not sure if my comment went through ...

I haven't seen Julie & Julia, but I agree with your examination of Food, Inc. It's very understated, and yet it's full of information. The sight of those too-fat chickens won't ever leave my mind, and when I read the Purdue label, that's what I think of. Every time. Not good for them.

I was also stunned at how the farmers are abused by the system, having to put in so much money that it's almost impossible to get ahead. And with an investment like that, how do you pick up and walk away with so much invested?

Your comments about Moore are on the money, too. I thought he mailed it in on Capitalism, as if even he's tired of being Michael Moore.

The trouble with him is that he's kind of the guy you don't want on your own team, because in inevitably steps way too far and ruins what until then was a sound argument. He's entertaining, though.

estienne64 said...

(Apologies for the late arrival – I've only just discovered this excellent blog via a tweet by ebertchicago.)
Absolutely with you about the "naturalness" of the toe scene in Adaptation – I've always thought of this as the moment when the cinema-going public found it possible to like Streep again, after all that hard work in the late 1980s and then the weird attempts at genre stuff in the 90s.

Craig said...

estienne64 -- No apologies necessary. Thanks for reading and replying. Your observations about the trajectory of Streep's career are very astute.