“If people aren’t interested in food, I’m not interested in them,” the renowned chef, cookbook author, and TV personality Julia Child once said.
Julia agrees in part. The documentary on Child shows only a surface-level interest in its subject, while lingering over the dishes she created. There are gorgeously filmed close-ups of carrots and onions, pear tart, and beef bourguignon—one of Child’s favorites and the first dish she ever cooked on television. Food photography has become its own art over the years, but food has never looked so appetizing in a documentary. Your mouth won’t just water. You’ll be drooling in your seat.
But that’s as good as Julia gets. It’s a womb-to-tomb telling of Child’s life that lacks even an ounce of the originality or spark that made Child a sensation. The film charts her volcanic rise from public television curiosity to late-night mainstay, while demonstrating the little quirks that inspired such affection in her fans. Her cooking revealed her humanity, and her desire to connect with others was paramount. In the film, the prose in her first book is described as being akin to “having your hand held through every step of the cooking process.” On her show, she would leave her mistakes in the final edit, instead of reshooting, in order to share with viewers that errors can open the door to new creations. She was almost a philosopher-chef, a new archetype that paved the way for everyone from Rachael Ray to José Andrés.
Living and working into her 90s, Child had a long and fascinating life that surely could have been the basis for good cinema, but Julia takes the most conventional, least interesting approach. At every point, directors Julie Cohen and Betsy West put their emphasis in the wrong place and misunderstand what makes Child compelling. There’s a long section early on explaining her courtship and marriage to her husband, Paul. It’s sweet and tender, but it drags on for far too long. Child has such a strong and charismatic personality that the backstory is redundant; you understand everything about her just by watching her work.
Her complications, however, deserve a deeper dive, and they get short shrift here—almost as if the filmmakers were afraid of being unkind. They touch on her complicated legacy as a feminist, then quickly abandon it. Child believed a woman’s role was to serve her husband, but she also was a tremendous model for working women and became one of the first celebrity champions of Planned Parenthood. It’s a complex subject that needs time to be unpacked for a patient audience, but here it gets only five minutes of screen time. Her vocal distaste for diet culture, for example, seems like a powerful feminist statement, but the film doesn’t even note its significance.
At its best, Julia makes an effective argument for the joy of cooking as a revolutionary principle. When she began her work, America’s food culture was built on Spam, Jell-O molds, and frozen dinners—though under the film’s loving gaze, even these foods somehow look beautiful. Child’s simple appreciation of the sensual delight of cooking helped transform that world into the one we have today, in which food is far more than sustenance. In today’s foodie culture, it can be an opportunity for cultural education, self-reflection, or hedonistic pleasure. Child made that possible by simply enjoying her work.
Which brings us back to the food itself. Oh, those loving portraits of delicious delectables, both sweet and savory, that leap off the screen and onto your taste buds. Great cinema makes you feel something through its manipulation of light and shadow. The food cinematography is the closest Julia ever gets to feeling like a real film. The rest is just good information delivered with no panache, a dish with no flavor that somehow still leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
Julia will be released in theaters on Friday, Nov. 19.