By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Hide your soul. No identity is safe. Not as long as Meryl Streep plies her chameleon charms. Body-snatching gourmet legend Julia Child’s very essence in “Julie & Julia,” she endows Nora Ephron’s exercise in comparative destines with its key ingredient. If imitation is in fact the greatest form of flattery, then there could be no finer homage.
The mechanism by which the tale is told is another thing. On the one hand we have to thank Julie Powell, the blogger-turned-novelist, for so endearingly reprising the memory of our country’s most famous cook. On the other hand, her successful plan to carve a literary place for herself supplies considerable chaff to chew along with the substance.
While she is played quite well by Amy Adams and must be applauded for her ingenuity, the analogous stature her project assumes fluctuates between cute and presumptuous. Bored stiff by a N.Y.C. government gig, her writing ambitions stuck in limbo, the Texas transplant hatches the idea of hitching her star to culinary idol Julia Child’s legacy.
By gumbo, she will prepare all 524 recipes contained in Mrs. Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and regularly post the results as well as first person revelations on a blog specifically devoted to the venture. Soon, she has intertwined her very being with the celebrated gourmand. Blog readers love it. We, like her husband, aren’t quite so sure.
Mr. Powell bemoans the hiatus Julie has ostensibly taken from their marriage, whereas we can’t help question the purity of the mission. Meshing the novel that emanated from the blog with portions of Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” the balancing act director Ephron’s seesaw screenplay attempts exhibits more chutzpah than dramatic symbiosis.
Then again, without such bold, if not self-serving, ambition, this loving paean to a cultural icon might have been too long deferred. Besides, in the great Streep’s Rodin-like hands, there is never doubt where the true importance of this film lies. However, though unmoved by Julie per se, we are nonetheless invested in what she ideally represents.
She is youth looking for its niche, bent on success and recognition and, in the best case scenario, too psyched to consider failure an option. And you can’t say her choice of a role model lacks inspiration. In the end justifies the means department, the Julia Child biography that evolves from Julie’s fantasy is funny, fascinating and warmly educational.
Act 1, Scene #2, the resurrected young Julia, wife of career diplomat Paul Child, finds herself in Paris without, of all things, a‘raison d’être. The 6’2” Smith graduate first considers designing hats and then gives bridge a whirl. But nah. It isn’t until she decides to be the only female student at Le Cordon Bleu that the famous passion is inaugurated.
Ah, sweet epiphany…that moment you discover what you want to be when you grow up. Sweeter yet is having someone to wax ebullient to about your newfound ardor. Here, Julia has scored in spades. Husband Paul, splendidly realized by Stanley Tucci, is all the afflatus, lover and wise counsel a groundbreaking pioneer needs.
It gets even better. But wait, we must switch to Queens, New York, circa the recent past, where Julie is making inroads in her pursuit. It’s sort of like watching a musical with a good plot and having to put up with interruptive, lacklustre dance numbers. Still, it only seems fair. After all, it’s she who is unearthing the Julia stuff.
Hence, in our polite indulgence we learn of Julie’s growing blogger audience and a spouse whose initial patience and enthusiasm are waning. Nice enough, but not quite the saintly cheerleader etched by Mr. Tucci, Chris Messina’s Eric Powell is the role Matthew Broderick might have played before realizing he was destined for headier things.
We wonder if young Eric, who bemoans Julie’s increasing neglect of wifely duties, secretly agrees with us that his epicure/blogger isn’t quite the parallel personage she features herself. Aw, that’s not kind. But who cares? We’ve been courteous, and now back to Julia. She’s really been rattling the pans at Le Cordon Bleu., and at home, too.
The wife of a diplomat has much opportunity to test her recipes. The word of palate spreads. And so it comes to pass that foodie friends Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey) invite her collaboration. They’re planning a French variant of Irma Rombauer’s “The Joy of Cooking,” but for Americans. Oh joy, indeed.
The rest is history, entertainingly served up via Meryl Streep’s phenomenally delicious transubstantiation into Mrs. Child herself. Mr. Tucci provides just the right side dish. So if you simply think of the Julie part of “ Julie & Julia” as the necessary but uninteresting waitress, it shouldn’t keep you from enjoying the piece de resistance she delivers.
“Julie & Julia,” rated PG-13, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by Nora Ephron and stars Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci and Amy Adams. Running time: 123 minutes
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