Movie Review: Julie & Julia
The Charlotte Observer
You know the feeling you get when you make a meal of two mildly savory appetizers that don't quite go together, and you leave you wishing you'd eaten one hefty entrée?
That's “Julie & Julia.” Half an hour later, I wanted to watch another movie.
Writer-director Nora Ephron took her idea from the book of that name by Julie Powell, a New Yorker who set out to make the 524 recipes in Julia Child's “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one year. Powell blogged about her effort, mixing (on the evidence of this movie) superficial philosophy and personal revelations with reports from the kitchen, then wrote a book about the effort.
Hardly cinematic stuff. Not very stirring, either, when the dramatic climax involves Powell's attempt to bone a duck. (I was on the edge of my seat, but I often tend to slide forward when I lose focus.)
So Ephron spends half the movie with Powell (Amy Adams) and her husband (Chris Messina). The other half follows Child (Meryl Streep) as she takes up cooking in post-World War II France, where her spouse (Stanley Tucci) works in the diplomatic corps. Yet this subject isn't suspenseful, either: We know the boisterous, unstoppable Child will become America's most beloved French chef.
The stories begin to parallel each other, as the women try to find something to fill empty hours. Child is restless because her intelligence often goes unused; Powell is emotionally depleted because she works at a firm that processes 9-11 insurance claims.
But the modern heroine is at a disadvantage. Child fights the snobbery of French officials who believe an American woman should stick to frying chicken, and her left-leaning husband worries that Congress' anti-Communist activities could end his career. By contrast, Powell frets because she overcooks some liver, and her husband gets mopey because she spends too much time at her computer.
In the end, the film becomes an inadvertent commentary on the shallowness of our celebrity-crazy society.
Child worked for years to get her first book published for a small reward; Powell blogged for months and became a well-rewarded media celebrity. The woman who found a calling was slow to rise; the one who found a gimmick took off on a rocket. (She'll reportedly publish a second memoir: “Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession,” which details an affair she had after the first book's publication. Yikes.)
The acting provides most of the film's pleasures. Three of the performers do just what we expect: Tucci is fastidiously wry, Messina has an easygoing manner, and Adams is once again perky and self-doubting and sweet.
Streep, incredibly, reinvents herself as the rollicking Child. Though she's eight inches shorter than Child (who stood 6 feet 2 inches tall), camera magic makes her tower over everyone. Child galumphs around in her sensible shoes, braying contempt for obstacles and laughing just as loudly at her own mistakes, and we forget we're watching the most honored actress of her generation. (And one who, at 59, is too old to play a woman of 37. Luckily, Child didn't get TV exposure until her 50s, and that's the look we recall.)
It's Streep's joie de vivre that gives the movie flavor in its blander moments and finally allows it to become the soufflé Ephron intended. But as Child would have told you, a soufflé isn't a filling meal.