Writer/director Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia is a cream puff of a movie—there’s ultimately not much too it, but it’s so sweet and delectable that you won’t notice its faults until well after the closing credits. With a witty script, a charming cast, and a positively joyous performance by Meryl Streep, it’s a welcome bit of cinematic escapism for moviegoers who could care less about giant flatulent robots and antisocial mute ninjas.
Julie & Julia is a combined adaptation of two very different books. The more captivating of the two is famed television chef Julia Child’s My Life in France (co-written by Child’s grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme), which chronicles her decade-long transformation from a bored but happy housewife to the author of a cookbook that would change the way Americans look at food and its preparation. Fifty years later, blogger-turned-author Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment chronicled Powell’s attempt to cook—and blog—her way through Child’s seminal doorstopper of a cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
The film bounces back and forth between postwar France and modern-day New York as it recounts these defining periods in each woman’s life. The cookbook itself is the only tangible connection between Meryl Streep’s Julia and Amy Adams’ Julie, but other parallels soon emerge. Both women are seeking something that will make them feel whole; both find it in their shared passion for cooking. Though both are happily married, Julie and Julia are independent women who insist on finding their own professional niches. Julia would eventually revolutionize American cookery and become a pop-culture icon; Julie’s achievements aren’t as earth-shaking, but are no less personally gratifying to the young writer.
Of the two interwoven tales, Child’s is by far the most entertaining, and the reason for seeing the film. Streep has never been such a pleasure to watch, or had this much fun on screen. She goes far beyond simply mimicking Child’s distinctive voice and mannerisms (an accomplishment in itself); when Streep is onscreen, the larger-than-life Child is resurrected before our eyes, full of the vibrancy and energy that were as much a part of her enduring appeal as her culinary skills.
It’s no wonder that the contemporary scenes, set mostly in the Queens apartment Julie shares with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), seem slight in comparison. The ridiculously appealing Adams and the charming Messina keep Julie’s story from being completely overshadowed, but not by much. Though Julie’s tale of a writer coming into her own is the modern framework on which both plotlines are hung, it often feels like a distraction. It’s just the nature of the story, though, and no fault of the screenwriting or direction. Child’s story could have easily carried its own movie, but the same can’t be said for Powell’s.
It’s also worth noting that Julie & Julia is a rare thing: A Hollywood chick flick whose characters have better things to do than chase anything in pants. Julie and Julia have already found love; what they’re seeking is fulfillment of a more personal sort. Though men are integral to each story—Julia receives unwavering support from her American diplomat husband (Stanley Tucci), and it’s Eric Powell who suggests that Julie blog about her ambitious experiment in the first place—men are the pit crews and never the drivers. The result is a movie about women that doesn’t alienate the men in the audience. Give it a try, guys; if you see one of your buddies in the audience, he won’t exactly be in a position to rat you out.
With Julie & Julia, Ephron has made her best film yet (sorry, militant Sleepless in Seattle fans). It’s full of the kinds of small pleasures that add up to big fun: flawless performances, beautiful settings, witty dialog, great clothes, and the best cinematic use so far of the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” It doesn’t quite capture the culinary magic of seminal foodie movies like Babette’s Feast and Like Water for Chocolate, but it’s witty, charming, very funny, and terrifically entertaining. Her movie might be lopsided and prone to self-indulgence, but Ephron, perhaps unconsciously, invokes the spirit of the indomitable Child: It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it’s satisfying and served up with panache.