By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 7, 2009
Two movies battle for pride of place in "Julie & Julia," Nora Ephron's adaptation of memoirs by blogger Julie Powell and culinary legend Julia Child. As the old "Sesame Street" song put it, "One of these things is not like the other." Or, if you prefer musicals, there's always "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God."
Either way, Powell's whiny, sad-sack self-absorption is no match for Child's spirit, skill and joie de vivre, a fact made painfully clear in a movie that soars whenever Child is on the screen and sags when Powell shows up -- most often with a complaint about turning 30, having successful friends and living in bummed-out, post-9/11 New York.
As "Julie & Julia" opens, in 1949, Child (Meryl Streep) and husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) are arriving in France, where the California-born Smithie will discover and deepen her true loves: for French cooking, French culture and Paul himself. In one of "Julie & Julia's" first scenes, Julia and Paul nip into a cozy bistro for lunch, which is a perfectly prepared sole meunière. From the delicate, crackling sounds of the fish being filleted to the sumptuous smacks of the couple reveling in its taste and texture, this sequence billboards the best of "Julie & Julia": When it focuses on Child, the movie transcends the then-this-happened chronology of so many blah biopics to become a rich, glistening celebration of sensuality and pleasure.
These episodes, taken from Child's marvelous 2006 memoir, "My Life in France," find Child dithering about what to do with her life, trying hatmaking and other genteel pursuits until she enrolls in the male-dominated Cordon Bleu cooking school. As she and Paul set up housekeeping, their story bubbles along at a warm and occasionally lusty simmer, making it all the more distressing when Ephron cuts to Queens circa 2002.
There, the depressed, thwarted Powell (Amy Adams) lives in a dingy apartment with her journalist husband, Eric (Chris Messina), and dithers about what to do with her life. When she's not complaining ("Let's face it, I never finish anything"), she's delivering windy pieces of exposition ("Do you know what I love about cooking?") that only serve to make her character more tiresome.
When Powell finally hits on the idea of cooking every recipe from Child's groundbreaking "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and blogging about it for a year, Ephron sets up the movie's structure, intercutting scenes of how Child came to write a book that revolutionized American cooking with Powell's parasitic and far less interesting enterprise. As "Julie & Julia" proceeds to toggle between the two women, it becomes painfully clear that the characters -- one inspiring, one insipid -- are hopelessly mismatched.
One gets the sense that for Child, food was a way of reaching out and engaging with the world: It was an expression of love. For Powell, cooking is a means of self-absorption rather than self-expression; what drives her more than anything is the fact that she's turning 30 and needs to compete with her toxic, equally narcissistic friends. That Julie's part of "Julie & Julia" fails so miserably can't be blamed on Adams, who does her best to inject humanity into a character whose emotional depth is that of a sauté pan. If Giselle from "Enchanted" can't make someone sympathetic, then it can't be done.
As is her wont, Streep nails Child's swooping vocal trill, although she lays on the horsy, matronly demeanor a bit thick. (The whoops and warbles become particularly cartoonish when her sister Dort, played by Jane Lynch, shows up for a visit.) It bears noting that Ephron, a bit unfairly, saw fit to cast a 60-year-old actress as a woman in her mid-30s. Still, Streep's portrayal of Child is an earthy, winning portrait of a woman overcoming ambition, self-doubt and rejection with a unique mix of passion and get-on-with-it practicality. (Ephron dispenses with the caricature haunting any Child-centric enterprise in an awkward but necessary scene where Powell and her husband watch Dan Aykroyd's notorious impersonation on "Saturday Night Live.")
The most welcome and surprising thing about "Julie & Julia" is how Ephron rescues Child from the stodgy, pearls-bedecked public character she later became, and presents her as a woman of strong appetites, especially when it came to her love affair with Paul. (They met in the OSS, and in the movie they can be seen deftly dodging questions about being spies.) Streep and Tucci enjoy a terrific, infectious on-screen chemistry as soul mates for whom food and entertaining were part of one long, sensuous continuum. "Julie & Julia" might have started out as a paean to the joys of cooking, but it turns out to be an even more profound appreciation of the mutual comprehension and erotic charge that defines a great marriage.
The fact that viewers know how it will all turn out only adds to the delightful frisson of watching as Child makes her first, tentative forays into the strange world of haute cuisine. Indeed, here Child's vanguard cookbook, the TV show it inspired and her ensuing, enduring status as a cherished American icon are given their proper context -- as the hard-won rewards for persistence and a very private kind of courage. (Child's feelings about never having had children are hinted at here in a couple of brief, bittersweet scenes, as is her strained relationship with the conservative WASP family she left behind.)
As for Powell, her project resulted in everything she wanted in the first place: fame, a book contract and a movie deal. That's it. No matter how strenuously Ephron tries to draw parallels between her protagonists' friendships, marriages, struggles and triumphs, it's no use. In pure style and strength of character, Child reigns supreme. And Powell's arms are too short to blog with God.
Julie & Julia (118 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG-13 for brief, strong profanity and some sensuality.