by HELEN GEIB
By now you’ve probably already read in the reviews, or seen in a blurb, or heard from a friend that Meryl Streep is fantastic as Julia Child in Julie & Julia. It’s completely true. She’s terrific, and reason enough to see the movie.
The film joins Julia and her husband Paul in 1949 in Paris, where they moved when Paul, who was in the foreign service, was assigned there. Julia falls in love with the city, the people, and especially the food. Searching for something to do with herself, she hits on the idea of enrolling at the famous culinary school Le Cordon Bleu. She discovers a passion for cooking and a talent for teaching to equal her delight in eating. An invitation to collaborate on the writing of a French cookbook for American women launched a ten-year effort that culminated in the 1961 publication of the best-seller Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
The “Julia” part of the film is, if you’ll pardon the food-inspired adjectives, light, frothy, and delicious. The adoring Paul at one point says of his wife that no one could resist the charm of her personality, not even the notoriously prickly and standoffish Parisians. Streep’s impersonation conveys that quality beautifully; it is a pleasure simply spending time in this woman’s company.
In fact, the half of the movie that is a biopic of Julia Child is thoroughly entertaining in all respects. Stanley Tucci gives an excellent supporting performance as Paul, and he and Streep draw an intensely attractive portrait of the Childs as a couple. Although none of the other characters has significant screen time, several stand out in colorful comedy bits. There are many amusing scenes, like Julia’s early flirtations with hat-making and bridge lessons and later kitchen adventures and misadventures. The film’s emphasis is comedic, but there are also some serious interludes; hard-felt publishing company rejections, frustrations with the political climate in the American civil service in the 1950s, the inability to have a child. The serious scenes are handled adroitly and are smoothly integrated into the main passion-for-French-cooking storyline.
The other half of the movie is one year in the life of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a New Yorker who wrote a hugely successful blog, later adapted into a book, of her experiences cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking: 524 recipes in 365 days, to paraphrase the blog’s tagline. (The screenplay is adapted from Powell’s book and Child’s memoir My Life in France). Julie and her husband Eric (Chris Messina) live in a typical city apartment in Queens. A frustrated novelist, she works at a deadening, dead-end day job answering phones for the development company responsible for the World Trade Center site. She starts the “Julie/Julia Project” for something constructive and creative to do.
The obvious parallel here with Child’s biography is deliberate. Writer-director Nora Ephron builds the narrative by interweaving the “Julie” and “Julia” plotlines to emphasize the commonalities. This works fairly well through the film’s first half as the women discover their respective cooking and writing talents and develop their shared foodie passion; however, in later scenes the film’s determination to find narrative and biographical equivalence at every juncture becomes heavy-handed and even off-putting.
A typical transition from a “Julia” crisis, Paul investigated for un-American activities, to a “Julie” crisis, where Eric sleeps on the couch in his office for a couple of nights because he and Julie have quarreled, is one example of the over-determined linkage. Another is the film’s superficial association of Julia’s cookbook with Julie’s blog. Late in the film Julie is told that her heroine, the now-elderly Julia, has disparaged the blog for not being respectful. Whatever the truth of and behind the anecdote, or of the charge against the blog, it is a valid criticism of a film that casually equates the two achievements.
I suspect the film does not do justice to the blog either. On the evidence presented, there is no reason for its popularity beyond the novelty of the project and the public’s insatiable appetite for trivia and public confession. Julie & Julia does full justice to its subjects’ passion for cooking and general all-around niceness. A tribute to them as writers it is not.
2 1/2 stars