'Julie And Julia': Take Two Foodies, Stir On Screen

wide Meryl Streep

Julie & Julia

  • Director: Nora Ephron
  • Genre: Drama Comedy
  • Running Time: 123 minutes

PG-13: Brief strong language and some sensuality.

With: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina

Writer-director Nora Ephron is acidly funny as an essayist and in interviews, but her movies like You've Got Mail and Bewitched and her biggest hit, Sleepless in Seattle, are both snobbish and pandering. Her characters have no subtext; they're cartoonish extroverts dropping judgments and pulling faces. Her new comedy, Julie & Julia, offers more of the same — except half of it, the Julia part, is dominated by Meryl Streep, who keeps you gasping with delight.

Streep plays the middle-aged Julia Child, and the movie follows her from the end of Child's government stint in Paris after World War II through the publication of her seminal book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which introduced Americans to techniques perfected at places like Le Cordon Bleu. As narrative, the Julia scenes are not that compelling; what holds you is watching Streep transcend mere mimicry and cut a path to the woman's soul.

Most American film actors are Method types — they begin by digging into their own psyches and dredging up past emotions. That's not, from what I can tell, how Streep works. Certainly not here! As Julia, she starts with the externals and moves from the outside in. The voice begins in the chest and erupts into that familiar burbling falsetto with its trills and diphthongs. Some words Child didn't want to let go of — they gave her too much pleasure, like butter. And those syllables — held notes — are Streep's way into Julia's pleasure centers.

Streep isn't tall, but she's photographed carefully and projects height; she understands the six-foot-two Child learned not to be ashamed of her size but to go with it. Her body follows that loopy voice in a kind of sloshy interpretive dance — and the performance becomes a musical triumph.

She's practically singing in an omelet-making reenactment from Child's 1960s black-and-white TV show — which the other main character, Julie Powell, played by Amy Adams, watches in 2002 with her husband, played by Chris Messina.

Alas, the real protagonist of Julie & Julia isn't Julia but Julie, who distracted herself from her messy life with a blog that chronicled her effort to cook all 524 dishes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking — in 365 days. Powell's book on that yearlong homage/ordeal is fast and fun, and the recipes, among them a whole section on aspic, are so out-of-fashion it's like a voyage back in time.

Ephron is a foodie, so the film has some texture. But when she cuts back and forth between Paris in the fifties and Queens, New York, in 2002 to show Julia and Julie achieve a kind of autonomy through cooking, The Godfather Part II this isn't. The connection is labored — and Julie, for all Amy Adams's charm, becomes a whiny cipher. All these characters really have in common is they both became celebrities, Child with her book and TV show, Powell when her blog started getting hits. One of the movie's emotional high points comes when Powell is interviewed by — gasp — food writer Amanda Hesser from The New York Times — who plays herself. The end titles climax cheekily with the news that not only did Powell get a book deal but her book was made into a movie. For Ephron, fame is the happiest ending.

I prefer to lop off Julie and her obnoxious husband and concentrate instead on Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia's devoted husband, Paul. The actors worked together on The Devil Wears Prada and Tucci knows enough not to compete with America's most revered thespian. But he enhances her: His easy, affectionate presence grounds Streep's theatricality. My guess is Tucci, who's more of a Method actor, used his own bedazzlement with Streep to convey Paul's bedazzlement with Julia. For all the high artifice, the emotions between the two of them are marvelously real.

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