Following your dreams can be more of a burden than anything.
This message is brought to us by “Julie Johnson,” a subdued, amusing film with a hopeful tone and a heart that almost soars despite having some rather heavy weights at the bottom of it.
The title character (Lili Taylor) is a Hoboken, N.J., housewife who lives a dull life with her boorish husband Rick (Noah Emmerich) and their two kids, Lisa (Mischa Barton) and Frankie (Gideon Jacobs). Their sex is passionless, and whenever she’s watching TV, he’ll come and change it to a ball game. Sometimes she fetches him a beer.
What gives Julie a little hope is her secret love for science. She buys as many science magazines as she can, hiding them in places where she knows Rick will never stumble across them — kitchen drawers, for example. She keeps it hidden even from Claire (Courtney Love), her life-long best friend and fellow suburban prisoner.
When a flier comes in the mail advertising a chance to get her G.E.D. and take a computer class at the community college, Julie seizes the opportunity and drags Claire with her. Rick, apparently thinking he is a character from a 1950s sitcom, thinks the whole thing is stupid, whereupon Julie tosses him out of the house. Claire, ever the follower of Julie’s strong intuitions, leaves her mediocre husband, too, and moves in with Julie and the kids.
Julie’s years of secret studying help her excel at math and computers, and she’s aided by a kindly professor, Mr. Miranda (Spalding Gray). Meanwhile, on the homefront, it seems inevitable before Lisa and Frankie have two mommies. Sure enough, Julie confesses her long-held romantic feelings for Claire, who is at first quite upset but soon admits the feeling is mutual.
Here the film passes up one good opportunity for an even better one — which it also doesn’t live up to. The first clever idea was having Julie live in a conservative, old-fashioned town while harboring a burning love for science. Such a story could have been a metaphor for so many things, while keeping it on a whimsical level.
Instead, the movie (which is based on a play by Wendy Hammond) gives that up and shows us one of the possible parallels: Julie’s secret leanings toward science compared to her secret leanings toward lesbianism. This has great potential, too, but the uneven script doesn’t pay it enough attention. Some parallels are made obvious — soon Julie is interrupting whatever Claire is watching so she can see a science show, for example — but others go completely untouched. Basically, the lesbianism, despite all the time spent on it, in the end is nothing more than an irrelevant distraction from the main plot.
Bob Gosse (who co-wrote the screenplay with Hammond) has an unobtrusive directorial style. There are many quiet, extended shots. Hand-held cameras are used noticeably only when Julie quickly hides a stack of magazines from Rick, and later when she kicks him out. A few random flashback shots are thrown in here and there; these are not bold enough to make any real impact, and one gets the feeling Gosse used them just for fun.
Taylor and Love perform adequately as Julie and Claire, pulling off the two characters’ different reactions to their new-found love very realistically. Julie, particularly, has a neat arc in which chasing her dreams causes her to BECOME those dreams, at the expense of most of her social life. Still, I’d like to have seen Taylor be a bit more lively. Even when Julie is happy, Taylor is so low-key and dowdy, it’s hard to be happy with her.
The film has a melancholy feel about it, ending on a note that is not entirely positive but that has some hope to it. Not quirky enough to be a big crowd-pleaser, and not insightful enough to be very moving, “Julie Johnson” nonetheless wins points for earnestness.
B- (; )