Like a meal composed of sinfully creamy potatoes au gratin and a poorly seasoned, overdone steak, Nora Ephron's new film celebrating Julia Child, Julie & Julia, offers a mixed plate.
One half of this bio-pic/light comedy hybrid is a sunny, thoroughly entertaining portrait of the renowned cook, writer and TV star, and her embrace of French cuisine during her days in Paris after the war. The other is a contemporary, often hackneyed account of one New York City gal's obsession with cooking all the recipes in Child's influential 1961 tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Ephron, who wrote the screenplay, draws from two books: Child's memoir, My Life in France, and Julie Powell's 2005 book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, which grew out of her blog documenting the year-long cook-like-Julia project. The film intercuts between Child (Meryl Streep) and Powell (Amy Adams), and their discoveries of food and self.
Unfortunately, Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) isn't the subtlest of filmmakers: She kills dramatic momentum with clumsy edits; dumps on a lot of syrupy music; and can't resist rom-com-style cheats for the Powell story (teary meltdowns, shrieking over live lobsters).
Ephron repeatedly hammers us with the similarities between the two women: It seems each gal is challenged and rewarded by cooking; has a kind spouse; and each feels validated by the successful conclusion of a quixotic project. Gosh, how uncanny. (That also describes me, and I assure you that Julie & Julia & Al would be an even worse movie.)
But despite these broad shared experiences, and the gimmick of Powell attempting to achieve Julia-ness through her recipes, I found the two intertwined stories an uneasy fit. Powell's tale is considerably less compelling: We see Child was an interesting woman, while Powell is depicted as a woman who did an interesting thing.
However clever the blog idea was, the acknowledged narcissism of Powell's project just doesn't contrast favorably with the expansiveness of Child's quest -- wanting all Americans to fall in love with French cuisine. The longer the film goes on, the more you just want to hang out with Child.
Because if there are two big reasons to see this film, it's the glimpses of Julia Child's fascinating life, and Meryl Streep portraying her. (Three, if you count Stanley Tucci, in a nicely understated role as Child's supportive husband; four, if you love boeuf Bourguignon.)
Streep's transformations can be distractingly showy, but in this she is simply a delight. Naturally, she nails Child's distinctive trilling voice, but the actress also does marvelous physical work, capturing the endearingly ungainly Child from the tips of her crinkled eyes all the way down to her big flippers. (Child was 6'2," and how the 5'6" Streep manages it is a marvel.)
Beyond the actor's trunk of disguises, Streep infuses Child with such infectious enthusiasm -- for food, learning, life, love and a jolly good challenge -- that you'll be utterly smitten. (Streep and the delightfully wry Tucci also manage to make a pair of middle-aged, bookish marrieds more thrilling than their younger, cooler counterpoints.) I perked up each time the story cut back to Child, and by mid-film was bored with Powell's fretting.
I don't imagine that the sunny portrait of Americans in post-war Paris is necessarily any more accurate than the carefully coded New York hipster experience a la Powell (retro-heavy apartment, self-conscious martinis). Yet something about the gleaming copper pans, fussy hats and gloves, and charming Old World interiors adds up to an enjoyable fantasia of shabby-chic, mid-century European living.
The film does assume viewers already know plenty about Child's later career in the 1960s and '70s, and devotes no time to the considerable influence of her book and the impact of her groundbreaking TV show. It's here I wish Ephron had truncated the Powell material (making a movie about writing a blog about reading a book is already recipe for pop eating itself) and devoted the film to the much more fascinating life of Child.
Still, Ephron -- a noted foodie -- does such a great job depicting home cooking as a fun adventure (bungles and all) and celebrating rich cuisine that enterprising theaters could probably sell Child's cookbooks right in the lobby. Powell, Child and Ephron are positively united on this point, and even inspirational: Yes, you can cook French food -- what's the worst that could happen (besides maxing out your checking account on ducks, wine and European butter)?
As with super-sugary cupcakes and caviar, tastes vary. My tolerance for mopey chick flicks is up there with my dislike for aspic, so others may not find the Powell portion of the film to be as predictable and grating as I did. Regardless, sometimes the divine potatoes make up for the less-satisfying meat. Thus the delicious Julia Child portion makes this late-summer charmer worth gobbling up.