Food metaphors seem like the cheap way to go with Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia.”
So let’s see if I can write this entire review without using one.
Let’s start by saying that “Julie & Julia” is half a good movie. It attempts to meld two books instead of focusing on one of them – not that I’m eager to see a whole film based on Julie Powell’s blog memoir from which this film derives its title.
On the other hand, I absolutely would have welcomed an entire movie adapted from Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” Child’s memoir about learning French cooking. No one, of course, would have the courage to make that movie.
Why is understandable – and exactly what’s wrong with movies today. Adams and the whole blogging angle skew young – which is the only acceptable audience for all films, it seems. Streep and Child skew old – the kind of audience that would watch this movie on HBO, which is where a pure Child biopic would probably have wound up. Too bad no one had the courage to go that route.
Instead, Ephron tries to graft the Child and Powell memoirs together. It’s not that Adams is a bad actress; she’s likable, talented and cute. But every time the film shifts its focus from Adams as Powell to Streep as Child, Powell is erased from the memory. And every time the narrative returns to Powell, a bubble is burst and you wind up waiting impatiently for Child’s turn to come around.
Adams’ Powell is a bit of a sad sack: an underachiever who is jealous of the success of her college friends, who have hotter, more happening careers than she does. She’s a middle manager in a New York government office, where she answers phone calls after 9/11 from people seeking help she is powerless to provide. She and her shmo of a husband Eric (Chris Messina) live above a Queens’ pizzeria, supposedly a step up from where they’ve been.
To fulfill herself and to prove she actually can finish a project, she takes on the task of cooking her way through Child’s famous French cookbook – “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which transformed the American view of French cuisine. She’ll make all 500+ recipes over the course of a year, and blog everyday about her adventures in the kitchen.
The counterpoint is Child’s own story, of moving to Paris in 1949 in her early 40s, with husband Paul Child (the immaculate Stanley Tucci), a cultural attaché at the American embassy. At loose ends, Julia decides that, given her love of eating French cuisine, she wants to learn to make the food herself – and so enrolls at the Cordon Bleu. In doing so, she fearlessly changed modern American cooking.
Streep towers as Child, a large, robust woman with a hearty chuckle, a flutey voice, a self-deprecating sense of humor and a Yankee willingness to call a spade a spade. Streep captures her musical tone, her wry delivery and her great good humor. Together with Tucci, she creates a portrait of a woman who has learned to devour life in huge bites and the man who loved her. Oops, straying awfully close to a food metaphor there.
By contrast, Adams’ Powell is whiny, if not exactly meek (but close), a self-absorbed woman unhappy with her lack of success but seemingly unable to do anything about it. The humor in her scenes is too cute by half, while the darker emotions seem to register closer to maudlin.
Writer-director Ephron wanted to compare and contrast the two women and she does find ways to parallel the two lives. But the bottom line is that one of those lives is truly interesting, while the other is truly not, despite Adams’ best efforts.
“Julie & Julia” is two movies stitched unevenly together. Thankfully, the half that works is good enough to keep you watching through the half that doesn’t.