For teachers of the method, shaping a character begins with psychological self-plumbing, but some actors find that by getting the externals right (cadence, physical mannerisms, wardrobe), they can cut a direct path to the soul. That’s the case with Meryl Streep as the middle-aged Julia Child in the comedy Julie & Julia: What begins as a great impersonation becomes a marvel of sympathetic imagination. The performance is transcendental. Streep’s voice is deeply musical, starting in the chest and erupting into that burbling falsetto with its trills and diphthongs. The voice is Streep’s way into Child’s pleasure centers, and the body—stiff-shouldered, sloshing around like an ocean liner—follows along in a kind of daffy interpretive dance. Streep isn’t tall, but she’s photographed carefully and projects height; she understands that the six-foot-two Child learned not to be ashamed of her size but to go with it. Her Julia is a force. At one point, she falls into bed with her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), and one’s instinctive response—“Julia Child having sex … Ewww …”—gives way to, “Julia Child having sex … Awesome!” Anything to hear that voice in full, happy throttle!
This is a Nora Ephron movie, which means cartoonish extroverts pulling faces. But Streep kicks it up about a million notches, and Ephron is an enthusiastic cook, so the film has some foodie texture. It’s a shame the protagonist isn’t Julia but Julie: Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who, in real life, distracted herself from a messy existence with a blog that chronicled her effort to cook all 524 dishes in Child and Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell’s book about that yearlong homage/ordeal is fast and fun, and the recipes are so out-of-fashion (aspic!) it’s like a voyage back in time. But when Ephron cuts between Paris in the fifties and Queens in 2002 to show Julia and Julie as they both achieve autonomy through cooking, The Godfather Part II this ain’t—the connection is strained. (The Child material is based on her memoir My Life in France, written with her nephew, Alex Prud’Homme.) Julie’s character doesn’t even track. She’s referred to as a “bitch,” but all we’ve seen is the patented Ephron adorable klutz. (Adams is too good to waste on Meg Ryan parts.) Ephron should make a film about the person she herself is (smart, acid) instead of the cutie-pixie of her dumb fantasies.
Julie & Julia is full of holes, but you don’t even care when Streep is onscreen. In one scene, Julia greets her sister at a train station, and the marvelous Jane Lynch makes a whooping entrance, a giantess even more ebulliently uncoordinated than her sister. Tucci’s Paul gazes on them like a man in clover. Tucci has a wonderful, easy presence here: My guess is his bedazzlement with Streep merged with Paul’s bedazzlement with Julia, and the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts. When actors like these are cooking, it’s better than haute cuisine.
Hayao Miyazaki’s latest animated film, a very loose adaptation of The Little Mermaid called Ponyo, is more straightforward and kiddie-friendly than such multilayered masterpieces as Spirited Away, but in some ways its simplicity lets you see the director’s greatness more clearly. The title character, a fish who turns into a little girl to be with a boy named Sosuke, runs on top of the turbulent waves during a fierce typhoon, and those waves are suddenly huge dark fish that dissolve back into waves and then again into fish and again into waves as the girl is carried forward. I could invoke the Buddha or fix Miyazaki’s ethos with a neat label like “pantheism”—but his universe is too unpredictable, too fluid, too protean. Nothing in Miyazaki’s universe ever stops transforming: There are spirits tucked away, ready to turn what you think you see—the visible world—into something else. Miyazaki proves why two-dimensional hand-drawn animation will always be more thrilling than 3-D: It doesn’t need to pretend to be bound by the laws of physics. The borders between flesh and spirit are infinitely porous.
Before I get too high-flown, let me say that Ponyo is unsullied by Disney’s English-language casting of Miley Cyrus’s little sister as Ponyo and a Jonas brother as Sosuke—although Noah Lindsey Cyrus is a tad shrill. But Liam Neeson has gravely splendid pipes as Ponyo’s father, a once-human wizard who lives underwater and despises humankind for polluting the planet. The early scenes recall Peter Max’s Yellow Submarine, with the father in a blue candy-striped jacket and flowing hair, a kind of undersea ringmaster. The father keeps his precious daughter in a bubble, afraid she’ll be carried to the surface—which she is anyway, on a jellyfish—and before he can rescue her, the wee fish begins her evolution. The natural world goes into an uproar as the moon descends and waters rise, and it falls to young Sosuke to prove his love for Ponyo is true.
Even with its radiant colors and Joe Hisaishi’s score, a lush mixture of Snow White, Wagner, and Shostakovich, Ponyo could be insipid. Its magic comes from someplace deeper. We constantly see movies that contradict their own messages—celebrations of mavericks that are slavishly formulaic, testaments to selfless love suffused with snobbery and narcissism. But when Miyazaki makes films that decry the threat to the natural world, every molecule onscreen resonates with that belief—a belief that dissolves the boundaries between form and content.
In brief: Go soon to my blog, the Projectionist, for brief takes on godfather-of-mumblecore Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax, which starts on a bracingly indefinite note—Bujalski is a poet of the emotionally paralyzed—then slackens and loses its satirical edge; and Cold Souls, an oddly dour Charlie Kaufman–like fantasy in which Paul Giamatti stores his soul to be able to play Uncle Vanya without breaking down. From August 12 to 18, Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade screens Gerardo Naranjo’s unnerving teen-rebel romance I’m Gonna Explode, in which a pair of runaways pitch a tent on the roof of one boy’s father’s mansion and slip indoors when the grown-ups go out searching. The DocuWeeks documentary festival runs at the IFC through August 20. I’ve only seen—and can recommend—NC Heikin’s Kimjongilia, a bitter look at North Korea’s grandiose propaganda and the lives of people who managed to escape from its lunatic regime.