Review: Julie & Julia
3.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Though a bit overcooked, “Julie & Julia” is, for the most part, an irresistible movie that goes down with the smooth ease of a dessert shooter. (Speaking of irresistible, dear readers, this is probably a good time to mention that you're about to be served a generous helping of food-related puns and metaphors.) A peppy ode to determined ladies, the passions that drive and define them, and the men who love them (with allegiance and minimal interference), the film has a highly conspicuous woman's touch, and for good reason: it was written and directed by Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”), whose script is an adaptation of the female-penned non-fiction books, “My Life in France” by legendary chef Julia Child (with nephew Alex Prud'homme) and “Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously” by blogger-turned-bestselling author Julie Powell.
Equally splitting the narrative between the two true stories, Ephron largely makes good on a clever and challenging concept. I have a few bones to pick with the movie, and we'll get to those in due course, but as an appetizer, you should know that “Julie & Julia” is smile-inducing, satisfying and spiked with a heart-burstingly great performance from Meryl Streep that should easily land her her 16th Oscar nomination.
“Julia Child wasn't always Julia Child,” one character says, and it's on that notion that Ephron builds one half of her two-course meal. When we're first introduced to Julia (Streep), she isn't even a cook, let alone one of the most famous cooks in history. Living in Paris in the 1940s with her foreign diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), Julia is seen searching for ways to bide her time while Paul brings home the bacon. Hat-making lessons fail to tickle her fancy, as does a short-lived membership with a bridge club. Finally, equipped with a robust appetite for food and competition, she enrolls at Le Cordon Bleu and excels dramatically, despite the cold skepticisms of the prestigious institute's elitist female dean. The film then tracks Julia's eight-year quest to get her famous culinary manual, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” published, from her initial collaboration with two French women to her eventual deal with Knopf.
Periodically, we jump forward to 2002 to spend time with Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a professionally unfulfilled woman who works a thankless cubicle job and lives in a tiny Queens apartment with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina). Tired of her habitual inability to finish things and her decided lack of “power,” Julie, an avid Julia Child devotee, embarks on a personal quest of her own: she vows to cook all 524 recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 365 days. She blogs about her experience, gains scores of readers and media exposure and, like her iconic idol, eventually becomes a published author (whose memoir, naturally, became the chief inspiration for this film).
While Julie's portion is palatable, the scenes involving Julia are far more savory, thanks mainly to Streep's delicious, uncanny portrayal. Once again, the chameleonic actress quickly vanishes into her character, nailing the fluctuating timbre and accentuated vowels of Julia's distinct voice and dexterously carrying off her amazon physicality (the filmmakers also have some crafty techniques for simulating Julia's 6 foot 2 inch frame, including forced perspective and, presumably, large footwear). Streep's Julia is one of the most welcoming and gladdening movie characters in recent memory: a smart yet irrepressible woman whose insatiable hunger for life seems to physically exhaust her as much as it excites her (or, perhaps she is weighed down by her own towering, plodding presence; in either case, it is brilliant work). Streep exhibits extraordinary compatibility with each of her fellow actors, notably Jane Lynch – who appears briefly but memorably as Julia's sister, Dorothy – and especially Tucci, her “Devil Wears Prada” costar with whom she has a warm, tender and comfortable on-screen relationship.
Adams – who, incidentally, starred opposite Streep in last year's “Doubt” – is fine and altogether pleasant as usual...emphasis on the usual. She's perfectly capable of embodying Julie, Ephron's new Meg Ryan-type heroine, but she doesn't give us anything we haven't seen from her before. Aside from having a healthy marriage, Julie is essentially a repeat of Adams' lead role in “Sunshine Cleaning”: a well-meaning but chronically underachieving thirty-something who uses a newfound, offbeat passion to revitalize her life (there's even the same sympathetic, first-act scene in which Adams's character encounters her far more successful – and quietly judgmental – friends). The go-to gal for likable leading ladies, Adams plays Julie well, but she's beginning to show a rather bland lack of range, and is nowhere near as captivating as Streep, the queen of reinvention.
The world that both of these actresses inhabit, as envisioned by Ephron and photographed by Stephen Goldblatt (HBO's “Angels in America”), is a sort of fact-based foodie fantasia – a reality that's been sweetened by a thick layer of Hollywood glaze. The director enjoys getting down and dirty in the kitchen (especially Julie's, where she shows the fledgling chef burn and botch more than a few recipes), but her movie is markedly tidy – even the messy parts have a cinematic sheen. The briskly edited montages alone are so spic-and-span, I kept waiting for Mr. Clean to pop in, brush his hands and proudly cross his arms. This is more an observation than a criticism. What I did find troublesome was the movie's general lack of conflict (Julie's race to meet her deadline is a good bookending device, but hardly riveting), its unapologetic (and unrealistic) sidelining of the male characters and its snappy, by-the-numbers structure (though rhythmic and stealthily paced, its abrupt, keep-the-ball-rolling scene jumps diminish its grace).
But, I digress. “Julie & Julia” is a great film for women and food afficianados, a good film for everyone else, and Streep is so delightful that the less digestible elements are easy to ignore. It's not quite gourmet, but for comfort food, it hits the spot.