Movie Review: Julie and Julia
Not quite haute cuisine, but a tasty dish nevertheless thanks to Streep.
Filmmaker Nora Ephron transports viewers to the Paris of the 1950s and the New York City of this decade in her tale of two true stories Julie & Julia. Combining the biographies Julie & Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme, Ephron’s Julie & Julia follows cooking icon Julia Child (flamboyantly, lovingly played by Meryl Streep) in her years in postwar France as she becomes the celebrated chef and author we remember today. The secondary storyline follows Julie Powell (Amy Adams), as she seeks an outlet during her soul-crushing time in New York after 9/11 and finds much needed joy in both blogging and cooking.
Julia, who lives in Paris with her fellow former OSS officer-turned-husband Paul (Stanley Tucci), finds her ambition later in life, becoming the first American woman to study at the Cordon Bleu. She then spends years co-writing with her colleagues Louise Bertholle and Simone Beck what will become the landmark book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a still-highly influential tome that taught Americans there was more to eat than canned, frozen, or processed foods and that cooking could be a joy.
The film’s parallel contemporary storyline follows Julie, a New Yorker pushing 30 who has yet to find anything near the success that her friends have and who can never seem to finish anything she starts, such as her novel. She works as a call center rep for an agency overseeing the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site. It’s a demoralizing job, but Julie finds the perfect outlet in cooking. A huge fan of Child’s, Julie devotes the next year to cooking all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking and documenting it in a blog. She becomes obsessed with completing the herculean task, much to the chagrin and neglect of her long-suffering but devoted husband Eric (Chris Messina). Powell’s blog soon becomes so popular that she, like her idol, finds success as a culinary book author.
Surprise! Streep is the best thing about this movie and the biggest reason to go see it. While her male contemporaries, such as De Niro and Pacino, have almost become caricatures of themselves, Streep simply gets better and — pun intended since it’s a foodie movie — more delectable with each movie she’s been in lately. Julie & Julia caps off a grand run she’s had in recent years of being the best thing in often so-so movies. Streep nails Julia Child’s distinctively haughty voice, and brings the late cooking icon to vivid life with equal parts charm, warmth and humor. (She even seems to have grown taller and bigger built to play the role.) Much as she did in last summer’s Mamma Mia!, Streep appears to be having a blast being in the movie and so the audience has fun watching her. The result is another crowd-pleasing, scene-stealing, and likely award-fetching performance.
Unfortunately, she has to share the movie with other characters and therein lies the biggest problem with Julie & Julia. Whenever Streep/Child is not on-screen, the viewer loses interest — and the movie loses steam — despite the efforts of so many other talented actors. Tucci (who also appeared in the sumptuous foodie flick Big Night) fares best as Julia’s husband Paul; he gentlemanly cedes the spotlight to Streep. He knows he’s here to play the supporting spouse role and that’s it, but he nevertheless imbues Paul with a quiet strength and stature (which is ironic given how much Julia towers over him). Likewise, Chris Messina, who had a memorable and moving role in Away We Go, plays Julie’s “saintly” husband as the personification of patience is a virtue. But that aside, the movie’s Eric is a bore.
Jane Lynch, Linda Emond, and Frances Sternhagen make noteworthy appearances, but it’s Adams who is burdened most with having to match Streep, whom she shares no scenes with. The shadow of Julia Child is cast over the entire movie, and Julie Powell’s ambitions and accomplishments simply pale in comparison. Julia taught Americans that “culinary arts” are two terms that really do belong together, leaving behind books that still influence foodies and chefs. Julie wrote a blog, followed someone else’s recipes, and got a movie made about her within six years of the events depicted.
It’s fascinating how both Child and Powell used then-burgeoning mediums — television and the Internet, respectively — to reach audiences and make their mark, but Child’s accomplishments dwarf whatever success Powell earned. It’d be like making a dual biopic of Steven Spielberg and those guys who remade Raiders in their backyard. It’s no contest. (At least this movie provides a fairer and more accurate portrayal of bloggers than any other film has thus far.) Ephron is no stranger to tackling parallel plots, namely in Sleepless in Seattle. But in this case Child’s story is just more entertaining and engrossing than Powell’s, so Ephron’s overall film suffers as a result.
As portrayed here, Julia had a zest and an appreciation for life, smiling and cooking her way through good times and bad. She loved her husband, with each of them treating the other as a full partner. Julie, on the other hand, comes across as a self-absorbed, neurotic whiner in comparison. Perhaps it can be chalked up to generational differences, although, in fairness to Julie, life in romantic post-war France and beleaguered post-9/11 New York City obviously beget two entirely different attitudes and experiences. Maybe Julia wouldn’t have been so cheery had she worked thanklessly in a cubicle dealing with grieving loved ones.
Despite the shortcomings of the Julie half of Julie & Julia, the film nevertheless still offers viewers a satisfying meal. It’s funny, heartfelt and escapist fare that will leave your mouth watering at all the meals prepared during the course of the movie — although to be fair, it’s the meals that Child prepares that leaves the viewer with a hearty appetite. Powell’s will leave you wondering how good the pizza was at the parlor she lived above.