In Theaters: Julie & Julia
1 Meryl Streep, giving by a wide measure the most endearing performance of the summer as jolly giant Julia Child;
1 adorable Stanley Tucci, as her loving husband Paul;
1 Amy Adams, twinkling and pouting in a pixie cut and checkered Vans as blogger Julie Powell;
1 handsome hunk (Chris Messina) in what can only be called "the girlfriend role";
1 Nora Ephron, a director who for all her faults is at least honestly interested in women;
50 glistening shots of maddeningly delicious-looking food;
a pinch of Jane Lynch (as Julia's even-taller sister) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (as Julie's sardonic best friend).
Toss all ingredients together. Some lumps will remain. Simmer for two hours.
In Julie & Julia, Nora Ephron combines the story of Julia Child writing her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking with the story of Julie Powell blogging it — cooking every recipe in the book over the course of a year. The result bears some resemblance to Julie's failed attempt at Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons: It doesn't hold together all that well, but the ingredients are so delicious it goes down pretty easy nonetheless.
In 2002, aspiring writer Julie Powell has just moved to Queens with her husband, Eric; desperate for something to take her mind off her rattletrap apartment and her dispiriting job, she launches the Julie/Julia project, and sets herself a one-year deadline so the blog doesn't end up as unfinished as her novel. Meanwhile, in postwar Paris, Julia Child takes cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu, gleefully chopping onions and murdering lobsters among her disdainful male classmates. If you had to pick one of those stories to watch — the depressed blogger in the crappy apartment or the hilarious budding chef in mid-century Paris — which would you choose?
It's really no fault of Amy Adams that the Julia sequences are way more fun than the Julie ones; she's perfectly fine in the role, even if some kind of movie-star transmogrification has happened since Junebug that makes it hard to believe in her as a real human being. Honestly, Meryl Streep's to blame: She's just too fantastic for words.
Clomping around Paris in a mid-century suit and a pillbox hat, as tall as a house and braying in Julia's great falsetto, Streep bears a striking resemblance to a Monty Python pepperpot. It's a performance so oversized it almost qualifies as drag. It's also almost unbearably entertaining to watch. Streep's larger-than-life Julia is kept earthbound — barely — by the always-welcome Tucci, who gives a graceful performance as an unassuming diplomat with a big heart and a healthy libido. (Among Julie & Julia's strengths is its forthright assertion that married grown-ups are allowed sex lives too, even in Hollywood.)
But charmant as Julia and Paul's long marriage may be, Ephron keeps her focus on Julia's work, as Julia cooks, writes, edits, and struggles to publish Mastering the Art over ten arduous years. This probably wouldn't be entertaining, of course, if it wasn't for Streep, who as Julia can transform the simple act of reading a letter aloud into an atonal aria of excitement. Poor contemporary Julie, though, has no such luck; while her blog does attract readers and, eventually, a front-page piece in the Times' Dining section (cue cameo from Times food editor Amanda Hesser), her struggles are less professional than personal. How does her blog affect her marriage? (Badly!) What does her mom think of her blog? (She's dismissive!) We're treated to a lot of speeches about how the Julie/Julia project has made Julie a better person, but we never quite see what it's actually done for her — besides get her a book deal, of course.
In light of the forevermore pairing of the two cooks, it's interesting to note that Julia Child didn't particularly like Julie Powell. Near the end of her life, the great doyenne of French cooking in America read The Julie/Julia Project, and told her legendary editor Judith Jones, "I don't think she's a serious cook." As Jones points out, Julia was of a different generation than Julie. "Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn't attractive, to me or Julia... Julia didn't like what she called 'the flimsies.' She didn't suffer fools, if you know what I mean."
In fact, Powell was serious, four-letter words be damned, and her blog (and the book that sprang from it) embraces Julia's no-nonsense cooking philosophy and butts heads with the budding locavore movement. "People speak of gleaning the green markets for the freshest this, the thinnest that, the greenest or firmest or softest whatever," Powell wrote, "as if what they're doing is a selfless act of consummate care and good taste, rather than the privileged activity of someone who doesn't have to work for a living." That's an angle on food culture that Julie & Julia doesn't address, and it would have been nice for a movie that paid so much attention to Julia's ideas about cuisine to pay a bit more attention to Julie's as well.
Of course, to make Julie's story into a movie, you have to make it about her personal struggle. That's the way Hollywood works. And for the most part, it's thrilling when a movie pays even a little attention to women, much less devotes two hours to their hopes and dreams and work and lives — without tanning them orange or putting them in vibrating panties. But it's too bad that Ephron didn't take Julie as seriously as she took Julia. Julia is one of the best movies of the year; Julie has a bad case of the flimsies.