'Julie & Julia' and Bureaucrat Bashing

I finally got around to seeing Julie & Julia. No one told me how anti-government-work it is.
by | September 23, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

I finally got around to seeing Julie & Julia. No one told me how anti-government-work it is.

Julie Powell, the young blogger who seeks to cook all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking , finds a source of fulfillment in cooking that is lacking in every other aspect of her life -- including and perhaps especially her job.

Powell is a cubicle jockey who works for a government agency. Her job is portrayed as so soul-killing that she practically has to take up overly ambitious cooking in a tiny kitchen in order to find any happiness and balance in her life.

All she does is push paper and answer the phone. Her boss is concerned about her abuse of sick-day policy and nothing else. The only coworker who is portrayed is on-screen only to give Powell high fives as her blog begins to become popular.

It's all just a grind.

The members of the public that Powell has to deal with are pushy, impatient and lacking in manners. Even when she starts to sympathize with one of them, the camera pulls back to show a little sign reminding workers not to make an emotional connection with the people they deal with.

Mind you, Powell isn't working for some anonymous agency. She's shown to work, as she did in real life, for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation -- the authority created by New York State and city to rebuild and revitalize Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11.

It's not just people complaining about their property tax bills or their building permits, in other words. Julie Powell is driven crazy by 9/11 widows and orphans -- and this is played for laughs.

This work is shown by the film to be not only boring and demeaning but a sure sign that Powell's life lacks direction -- that she is certainly not keeping up with peers enjoying enviable careers in real estate development and journalism.

"That's her opinion and that's how they portrayed it," says an LMDC spokesman.

Now, I realize that this is not the point of the film, that Julie & Julia is basically a light comedy meant to show women finding happiness through a project of their own over which they have creative control -- in both cases, through cooking.

But government work is specifically shown to be an obstacle when set against this idea of personal happiness and fulfillment. After all, Julia Child's husband Paul also did government work, during the 1950s. He is shown to be the victim of McCarthyite witch-hunting and a lack of respect and lack of control over his personal life.

It's long been the case that people who work for the government, including as teachers, do not receive the heroic or favorable portrayals that they did decades ago. That has an impact.

Many thousands of people are buying Powell's and Child's books right now, inspired into thinking that they're going to become masterful home cooks.

No one is going to want to work for the government as a result of seeing this film, however.

Incidentally, I disagree with the prevailing wisdom that Meryl Streep's performance as Julia Child completely outshines Amy Adams as Julie Powell. Streep is her usual master-mimic self and is quite funny, but it's a one-note performance.

Adams, on the other hand, captures something real about a particular type of contemporary character -- the person who knows that she has talent and worth but hasn't channeled her gifts in any concrete way, as yet.

You know -- because she works for the government.

Alan Greenblatt | Senior Staff Writer | agreenblatt@governing.com