Julie & Juila

August, 2009, Comedy






Julie & Julia


Food snobs rejoice; here’s a talent-laden Hollywood effort that unabashedly revels in the joys of sumptuous cuisine, the more calorie-laden the better. Writer/director/producer Nora Ephron, who’s had a hand in some of the most sophisticated romantic comedies of the last two decades, (When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless In Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) chronicled her own divorce on film (Heartburn) and received an Oscar nomination for Silkwood’s screenplay handles all three behind-the-camera assignments in this shrewdly blended story of two women whose dedication, (first to cooking and then to emoting about it) made them household names in the world of what is now inadequately referred to as “fine dining”.  Caloric overload has never been more un-apologetically glorified.


Ephron’s screenplay employs a perfect conceit; examining the life of Julia Child by adapting a book written about her recipes penned by amateur chef and daily blogger Julie Powell, who spent a year preparing - - then writing about - - each of the more than 500 entries in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, Child’s monumental tome on the subject of Gallic culinary genius.


As Julie, Amy Adams (Junebug, Doubt) provides a pleasant take on a contemporary culinary aficionado - - but she’s overshadowed at almost every turn by Meryl Streep’s Ms. Child, the Grande Dame of the American kitchen and television’s original cooking show superstar. Artificially padded (one hopes) to the girth of an NFL linebacker and employing her preternatural ability at mimicry, Streep delivers, in perfect recreation of Child’s nasal intonations, an especially warm and attractive portrait of a wife whose deep affection for her husband and passion for good food reflect that rarest of Hollywood leading ladies; a deeply sensual, mature woman as confidently at home with her feelings as she is with her measurements.


Streep positively glows with middle-aged appeal as the newly married wife of Paul Child, an American diplomat whose assignment in Paris provides his bride with the opportunity to indulge a passion for delicious food that nearly rivals her appetite for him. In a delicately understated performance of such warmth and generosity it rivals that of his appealing co-star, the much under-appreciated character actor Stanley Tucci plays Paul as a bemused but consistently supportive spouse who’s as delighted with his wife’s improbable success as she is. It’s hard to believe that the affection these two express for each other in this film can come from the same actors who traded such memorably lacerating jabs three years ago in The Devil Wears Prada.  


The opening scenes of this movie focus on Julie, a wanna-be writer dragging herself through workdays as a civil service employee. She and husband Eric (Chris Messina) have recently moved from Brooklyn to Queens where they occupy a 900 sq.ft. walk-up over a pizza parlor. When he urges her to pursue her passion and write a book, she decides to cook and blog her way through Child’s magnum opus.


Now the scene shifts back in time and place to post- WW II Paris, where Paul Child has taken up duties at the American Embassy and arranged a charming and spacious apartment for himself and his outgoing, energetic but severely under-challenged wife. She initially dabbles in hat-making but quickly settles on trying a cooking course at the famous Cordon Bleu Institute, where she discovers to her immense satisfaction that her passion for food is more than equaled by a unique skill in preparing it.


Julie and Julia then flashes back and forth between the year in which Julie grows more obsessive about her project and a remarkably deft chronology of the Childs’ marriage and her work, culled from Julia’s memoir, “My Life In France”. By interspersing the events from Paul and Julia’s years together, Ephron fashions an increasingly interesting storyline about the challenges Julia faced not only in writing her cookbook but getting it published. As the movie progresses, Paul and Julia become far more interesting that watching Julie use her cramped kitchen to grind through more recipes while whining to her husband about the tough hand she’s dealt herself. Since Ms. Adams fails to develop into the bitch the script’s dialogue specifically employs in describing her, the movie, (and the audience’s interest) inevitably tip in Streep’s favor.


Adams and Streep have also worked together quite recently, as the nuns confronting a possible pedophile priest in last year’s Doubt. There’s no denying the younger woman’s talent, so much in evidence in Junebug, for which she won an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress in 2005. But Adams personifies the wholesome pixie; she strikes me as something like an early Meg Ryan.  As a result, Adam’s Julie lacks the requisite depth required to hold up her half of this storyline; her protests sound whiney and the running self-appraisal she provides of her results in the kitchen too often sound self-congratulatory rather than candid. Yes, Julie does complete her self-imposed task within the prescribed deadline and gets her own book deal in the bargain, but by the time that occurs, you’ll have fallen for the big-boned/big-hearted lady whose screeching voice could etch glass. Sic semper Streep!


Lopsided the results may be, but Ephron loads her film with delicious bits of clever dialogue, appealing vignettes from the Childs’ years as Parisians and so many impossibly luscious dishes that it’s impossible not to get caught up in what surely was a directorial labor of love. In doing so, Ephron salutes an early feminist heroine, delivers a paean to the art of enjoying life through an appreciation for good food all while providing the most offbeat and fascinating movie of the summer.


The Verdict? More fun than any two hours in the dark has a right to be.                   

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