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Julie & Julia, The Holiday, and The Fried Green Tomatoes Problem
Julie & Julia is a 2009 dramedy and maybe the best recent example of the difficulty with a double-storyline movie that I like to call the Fried Green Tomatoes problem. It’s a movie where Meryl Streep, the star’s character actress and the character actress’ star, then at the height of her post-Devil Wears Prada Renaissance (which is saying something, as she was uniquely-highly regarded before her own Renaissance, such that one could reasonably argue she went from Renaissance to Renaissance and skipped a career Middle Ages altogether) plays Julia Child, a vividly idiosyncratic and deeply beloved author, cook, and public figure, and then for half of the movie Streep-as-Julia disappears while Amy Adams plays a woman who dislikes living in Queens and has heard of Julia Child.
Amy Adams is a charming, talented actor who does her level best with what she’s given, but watching Julie and Julia feels like watching Nero force a bunch of gladiators to fight a pride of lions outfitted with nothing but wooden swords.
Worse still, Streep-as-Julia was reunited with her perhaps-equally-beloved Prada costar Stanley Tucci for her storylines. Tucci became shamelessly aware of what people wanted from him sometime around 2003 and has refused to stop playing to the cheap seats ever since, bless him. He used to play shabby ex-husbands and Stanley Kubrick and hit men but once he realized all anyone wanted from him was a slightly camp affect, a shot or two of his bare forearms as he stirs some red sauce, and a lightly bitchy/avuncular/supportive relationship with his female co-stars, that’s all he ever did again (I hope he never stops). When Streep-as-Julia wasn’t taking deliriously delightful bubble baths and receiving dimly-glowing adoring stares from Stanley Tucci, she was bursting into infectious laughter with Jane Lynch as the two of them strode around Paris being gloriously tall and unself-conscious and middle-aged. Then poor Amy Adams had to shuffle back onscreen to dislike living in Queens for a while, which felt like having a stockpot of cold water dashed over one’s head.
You could include the Godfather Part II in this tradition, or at least I would – I’ve never cared about Las Vegas or Senate committees, but I care a great deal about a young Robert DeNiro doing a Marlon Brando impression and meeting a bunch of characters I already remember from the first Godfather only this time they’re played by Bruno Kirby. Movies like Pulp Fiction or Magnolia wouldn’t merit inclusion, however, because there are multiple storylines, so there’s never a sense of needing to balance things in a roughly 50/50 split. Those fall under the Crash mosaic problem, which has nothing to do with this one.
Fried Green Tomatoes suffers the same problem, although it is a near-perfect movie nevertheless. But given your choice between “Mary-Louise Parker and Mary Stuart Masterson fall in love and engineer a Goodbye-Earl-style abusive-husband murder conspiracy that implicates an entire whimsical Southern town before starting a successful barbecue restaurant during the Great Depression” and “Kathy Bates makes a friend at the local retirement home and learns to stop letting other drivers cut her off in parking lots in the 1980s,” you already know which storyline you’d rather watch. Same one I would, and it’s not even close. And I like Kathy Bates plenty!
In fact, as far as I can tell, the only movie that’s ever successfully pulled the two-plots-for-the-price-of-one gimmick is 2006’s The Holiday, which is two hours and sixteen minutes long but if anything ought to have been longer. It helps to think of The Holiday as a live-action cartoon, with the same relationship to real-world sex and romance as Wile E. Coyote had to real-world violence. Cameron Diaz mutters “I’ve got to get away…maybe a holiday…let’s see what the Internet has…what’s this? A cottage?” out loud to herself in real time as she use Google to learn what a vacation is for the very first time; Jack Black spends his limited but vital screen time waggling as vigorously as he knows how; Kate Winslet masters the muted-to-shatteringly-vivid “Who, me?” glow that Taylor Swift spent most of the aughts chasing while a very old man everyone treats like a well-behaved toddler explains the principles of romantic comedies to her.
It is a perfect film and I watch it every single time it comes on TV, which is often. Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety. The secondary cast is as immaculately selected as Sidney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre in Casablanca – there’s an early role for Kathryn Hahn, plus two of the leads from A Knight’s Tale play the sort of pantomime villains you’re supposed to hiss at whenever they walk onscreen. Cameron Diaz has the most elastic-yet-gorgeous face imaginable, as if God had gifted Gumby with extreme personal beauty; she spends the entire movie tripping over her “busy businesswoman” heels and making eyes at Jude Law, who plays the masculine arrangement of “Oh, am I beautiful? I’m so busy being a perfect father and devoted widower that I hadn’t noticed” down to the ground. He doesn’t know he’s beautiful!!!! And that’s what makes him beautiful!
Plausibility does not exist in this universe, only concepts and shapes and cosmic truth. Also, The Holiday very helpfully color-coordinates its storylines, where the two blonde people fall in love with one another, while the two brunette people fall in love, which I appreciated. It is fundamentally a movie about the four humors — Cameron Diaz has too much yellow bile (which is why she has blonde hair to begin with) and becomes choleric, which contributes to her personal success but also results in dyspepsia, irritability, and excessive dryness; this is cured by sending her to England, a wet/cool environment. Kate Winslet has too much black bile, making her hair brown and contributing to her melancholy nature, which is cured by Jack Black (the double black cancels itself out) and the warm, dry environment of Los Angeles. Everyone holds end up their end of the bargain. It’s all Julia, no Julie, and for anyone seeking to film a two-plot movie in future, let The Holiday be your guide and you can’t go wrong.