Julie Johnson

on January 01, 1900 by Wade Major
What begins as a promising look at one woman's late-life intellectual awakening becomes a drawn-out look at latent lesbianism in "Julie Johnson," the latest from acclaimed "Niagara, Niagara" director Bob Gosse.

Co-scripted by Gosse and Wendy Hammond, on whose play the film is based, "Julie Johnson" stars Lili Taylor in the title role, an average New Jersey housewife whose world is largely confined to husband (Noah Emmerich), kids (Mischa Barton and Gideon Jacobs), backyard barbecues and other assorted middle-class routines. But Julie also harbors a secret infatuation with science, stockpiling "Scientific American" magazines in her cupboards and reading them in private, determined to understand the complicated lingo in the articles. Realizing that if she doesn't act now, she never will, Julie enrolls in a community college computer class, earning the instant admiration of the professor, Mr. Miranda (Spalding Gray) both for her work habits and for what appears to be an uncanny knack for programming. Husband Rick, however, dislikes the idea, and best friend Claire (Courtney Love), who reluctantly agrees to take the course with her, simply doesn't get it.

To this point, the film works rather well, creating and developing believable characters, credible dilemmas and tightly manageable dramatic scenarios--all of which makes the film's subsequent narrative disintegration all the more disheartening. No sooner has Julie begun to seize control of her life than she takes the radical step of kicking Rick out of the house. Claire, inspired by her friend's courage, takes similar action and walks out on her equally useless mate, temporarily taking root with Julie until she can find a place of her own. Then, suddenly and without warning, the film veers hard left, sidelining its previous focus as Julie and Claire begin exploring long-repressed feelings for each other, finally falling headlong into a full-blown lesbian affair.

It's easy to imagine this bizarre confluence of events working well enough on stage, where lapses in believability are more easily managed by the live performance dynamic. Movies, however, are far less forgiving, particularly when making a conscious choice to approach a subject as realistically as possible. Though there are undoubtedly many such women who experience joint intellectual and sexual awakenings, the attempt to address them both in the short span of 100 minutes does a disservice to the film and to audiences. Julie's passion for learning and her passion for Claire, though related, do not easily translate on film. Most are likely to feel betrayed by the belated lesbian detour, which consumes so much time during the film's second half that it's never able to fully address Julie's intellectual development.

Either approach would have made a fine film on its own. Together in one movie, they give fatal short shrift to each other, proving far too much for the otherwise fine writing, good performances and sensitive directing to overcome. Starring Lili Taylor, Courtney Love, Spalding Gray and Noah Emmerich. Directed by Bob Gosse. Written by Bob Gosse and Wendy Hammond. Produced by Ray Angelic. A Regent release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 98 min.

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