The fervid enthusiasm for The Cove, a partisan documentary that exposes the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese fishing town of Taiji, is so intense that you may experience caution about raising any objections to the film. It’s as if by questioning the movie’s calculated approach to the slaughter of these mammals you're guilty of handing out the spears and harpoons to the killers. But that’s exactly the paradigm The Cove sets up – an Us vs Them dynamic that I believe weakens the story. In an attempt to quickly transform the movie audience into instant activists, The Cove by-passes a contemplative investigation of the hunt and instead uses the nakedly visceral techniques of melodrama to outrage its viewers. Judging by many of the reviews I’ve read, it appears to be working.
Director Louie Psihoyos (who is a former National Geographic photographer) and animal rights activist Ric O’Barry (a former dolphin trainer) are rightly appalled by the cruelty taking place in the cove (where dolphins are rounded up and either killed for food, or sent to a living death in marine parks). But due to government and fishing industry collusion, they can’t prove it. (Apparently, close to 23,000 dolphins are driven into the cove each year.) So Psihoyos and O’Barry decide to organize a team with thermal cameras and night-vision goggles to slip by the secured location and (with hidden cameras) capture the hunt in order to expose the fishermen. Since The Cove borrows the techniques of a thriller it has a certain dramatic kick when we watch the group organize their battle plan like a commando army. And the footage they get is so horrifying it leaves you in a state of helpless anger. But given our anthropomorphic identification with dolphins, doesn't it seem crudely manipulative to use this footage to stir those sentiments in the viewer while simultaneously indicting the hunters? (I somehow doubt that footage of a group murdering sharks would have the same impact on the movie audience.)
The Cove is also an examination of the grief and guilt that O’Barry feels about his former job of training dolphins for exhibition. (He trained the mammals used on the ‘60s television program Flipper.) While there’s no question of O’Barry’s sincerity at wishing to amend for his past acts by now preventing the current killing, the slick style of the film works against his intent. Psihoyos uses techniques no different than the ones employed to invoke sentimentality on Flipper. Besides directing the movie, Louie Psihoyos is also the co-founder of the Ocean Preservation Society, which is to say that the film has an ecological agenda that it wears proudly on its sleeve. Now I’m not suggesting that because of this The Cove traffics in bad faith the way Michael Moore’s pictures do. What I’m saying is that the film is trying to be both a recruitment poster as well as a criminal indictment – and the two styles don’t mix very comfortably. The Cove is a powerful and effective bit of agit-prop that outrages and disgusts. But ultimately its goal is to get the audience cheering when the bad guys are outed. Because of its arm-twisting techniques, the one thing The Cove doesn’t do is encourage you to think.
I’m also a little perplexed by all the praise Meryl Streep is getting for her over-controlled performance as cookbook author Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s new romantic comedy Julie & Julia. Streep’s acting in recent years has been reduced to a catalogue of mannerisms. Those tics and inflections continue to call attention to her acting abilities rather than revealing more about the character she is playing. Meryl Streep has become the ultimate control-freak where every acting movement gets highlighted in the same way an operatic diva’s high C's are designed to get massive applause.
In Julie & Julia, all of Julia Child’s eccentricities and formal presentations end up concentrated in a selection of vocal inflections and self-conscious gestures. Streep’s energy becomes so concentrated in getting those details down that her performance has no lyricism, or cohesion. (She is far more effective in comedies like Death Becomes Her, or routine action films like The River Wild, partly because she gets to act with her whole body rather than breaking her role down into character bits.) When a tape of Dan Ackroyd parodying Julia Child on Saturday Night Live appears in Julie & Julia, his impersonation lays waste to Streep’s performance because you can feel Child’s soul in it. Now Magazine film critic Susan Cole was sharp to pounce on that:
“As you’re chuckling along…you realize that, as the gifted cooking instructor Child, Meryl Streep is herself doing an impersonation, and that does two things. You laugh, much like you laugh at Aykroyd, every time Streep is onscreen, but that in turn vastly reduces the emotional stakes. You just can’t get that invested in the character.”
You don’t really get too heavily invested in Julie & Julia either. It contains that genteel romanticism common to Nora Ephron’s work (Heartburn, Sleepless in Seattle). (It still amazes me that I have female friends who don’t recognize that if you reversed the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan roles in Sleeping in Seattle, you would have a very creepy stalker picture.). Yet even though there’s a quaint air throughout, where well-meaning people struggle to find recognition and love, Julie & Julia has a certain delicate charm that her other films lacked.
The movie is made up of two stories that run parallel. One is a contemporary story where Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is a frustrated young married woman living in Queens and growing tired of her self-centered friends and a New York government job that deals with the aftermath of 9/11. To find herself, she’s encouraged by her editor husband Eric (Chris Messina) to start a blog. She decides that the blog will be about her journey in cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s epic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This task ultimately leads her to write her own book about the experience. Intercut with Julie’s story is one about Julia Child’s excursion to Paris with her diplomat husband Paul (a touching Stanley Tucci), where she falls in love with French cuisine and ultimately sets out to write a book that introduces it to Americans.
Since Streep’s performance is so dominant, it might be easy to overlook the fine, subtle work of Amy Adams. If Streep compartmentalizes her character, Adams is completely fluid in letting Julie’s fluctuating moods flood into hers. She is so vividly alive that I wish the film had just been about her trying to invoke Julia Child in order to find her own voice. I think that’s what Nora Ephron is aiming for in Julie & Julia anyway. But judging by the results, she only gets halfway there.