In 2002, aspiring writer Julie Powell (Amy Adams, Streep's "Doubt" costar) had an unpublished novel and a Governmental cubicle job while her college friends had become New York City movers and shakers. Reminiscing one night with husband Eric (Chris Messina, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona") about the time her mother made boeuf bourguignon, a light switch is thrown and Powell finds purpose in conquering Julia Child's 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' and blogging about it in what would become her book, "Julie & Julia."
A few years back Alex Prud'homme and Julia Child's "My Life in France" was published right on the heels of Julie Powell's "Julie & Julia" and the two books seemed like a matched set from the start. Writer/director Nora Ephron ("You've Got Mail," "Bewitched") thinly disguised herself as a cookbook author in her novel "Heartburn," which detailed the breakup of her marriage, and so it seems a natural that she and her alter ego, Meryl Streep, would be drawn to the Julia Child project.
Ephron does a pretty good job marrying the two books, cutting back and forth between the stories, occasionally employing a match shot as a segue, but there is no denying that it is Julia's life in France and her struggle to get what was eventually titled 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' published that is the far more interesting story and that perhaps Powell's would have been better served as a standalone entry. Two books, two movies.
The film even opens with Julia (Streep), cataloging that infamous first meal in France (sole meuniere) in 1949 that gave her a new vocation (Child, like Powell, had been a Government employee, where she met her husband Paul in the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA). Then we're plunked down in 2002 Queens, where the Powells have just moved from Brooklyn and where Julie will begin her new missive after being dissed by a friend in a New Yorker article about unfulfilled potential at the age of thirty. The film progresses with Julie getting to 'know' Julia as she works her way through her cookbook and sees her blog begin to attract first local, then national, attention.
At first, it seems as if Streep might be taking Child over the line into caricature, but she seasons her performance with just the right amount of outrageousness. She's got the vocal thing down, if maybe a register higher, as well as Child's domineering physicality (5'6" Streep was cast with height-challenged actors and modified props to make her seem larger as Julie was 6'2"). She huffs, puffs, yodels and raspberries and she's a hoot to watch. Adams, on the other hand, has had her natural luminosity washed out and makes a mousey Julie. It's the actress's least distinguished performance, although she's perfectly adequate in it. As the husbands, Stanley Tucci, who made the Tucci family Timpano a hit in "Big Night," is a little too big to play Paul Child (I've seen them walking through Harvard Yard years ago, and he was a full head shorter), but he has great chemistry with Streep and the two create the unlikely, surprisingly bawdy couple. Messina is likeable as Julie's supportive, if sometimes exasperated, hubbie.
The supporting roles feature some spiffy casting, most notably Jane Lynch ("Best in Show," "The 40-Year Old Virgin") as Julia's even taller sister Dorothy. Lynch digs into the role with gusto and seems a pea in a pod with Julia (looking at themselves in a mirror before a Parisian party in Dorothy's honor, Streep announces 'Not bad!...but not great either.') Linda Emond ("North Country," "Stop-Loss") and Helen Carey ("Little Children," "21") bring to life Julia's drastically different coauthors Simone 'Simka' Beck and Louisette Bertholle and character actress Deborah Rush ("American Wedding," "The Visitor") is lively as Julia's influential pen pal Avis De Voto. Frances Sternhagen (HBO's "Sex and the City," "The Mist") pops in briefly as "Joy of Cooking" author Irma Rombauer. Mary Lynn Rajskub ('24's' Chloe) is wasted as Julie's best buddy Sarah.
Concentration is given to the Child marriage, sometimes over the cooking. In one dinner party scene, we have no idea what Julia has served her guests and the cook's arduous research in trying to perfect the French baguette is nowhere to be seen, just as Julie's infamous week of out-of-fashion aspics is given the gloss over (in fact, Ephron fails to get across just what a challenge it was that Powell set herself up for). Still, the film should inspire many to return to the classic boeuf bourguignon, the film's most lovingly showcased creation. Ephron wastes screen time by including Dan Ackroyd's entire SNL Child skit, something most going to this movie would surely know by heart, and gets sloppy by crosscutting both of her stories into a montage where the twain had never met. As in Powell's book, the incident in which Child responded rather churlishly to a reporter about Julie's blog is brought up and never given a satisfying conclusion - it just hangs out there, a big unanswered question - and the film ends on a flat note as the Powells visit Julia's kitchen in the Smithsonian, a place Adams has been spending a lot of time in this year (her Amelia Earhart 'battled' there). Ephron does a better job getting into the essence of writing, charting the many years and revisions required to get Child's cookbook out there as compared to Powell's instantaneous experience with the then-new art of blogging.
"Julie & Julia" is a distillation of two good books into something less than intoxicating, but it's still good fun whenever Streep is on screen.
Robin did not see this film.
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