Julie and Julia: Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep cook up a movie
Julie and Julia is the kind of movie that makes you hungry for a butter-sauce laden helping of sole meuniere. It’s the kind of movie that will make you thirsty for a pleasant Bordeaux. It’s the kind of movie that will raise your cholesterol level just by watching it. It’s the kind of movie that makes you believe Meryl Streep could play a block of ice and she’d be the warmest character in the film.
Streep plays Julia Child, master French chef and the woman who made the high art of cooking user friendly for housewives throughout America. Amy Adams plays Julie Powell, a Queens wife, worker bee, and frustrated writer who wrote a blog a few years back chronicling her one year odyssey in cooking every recipe in Julia Child’s seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell ended up writing a book based on her blog and then Nora Ephron made this movie based on the book. Well, based on two books really: Powell’s and also parts of Child’s enjoyable memoir, My Life in France.
I didn’t read that book but my wife did, and she read parts of it out loud to me, which made me hungry and thirsty and happy that Julia Child and her husband Paul (a serene performance by Stanley Tucci) seemed to have the kind of idyllic life and marriage that resulted in her mastering the art of French cooking and becoming the kind of character that only Meryl Streep could play. You’d like to believe that there are other actresses out there as good as Streep who simply don’t get the parts, but it is hard to believe that anyone except Streep was born to play this role.
She is magnificent as Julia Child. Witty, warm, funny, charming, and fully alive, but she is even more magnificent for what she does for the movie as a whole. She lifts it out of the doldrums of what could have been another missable Nora Ephron rom-com and turns it into a buoyant and touching valentine to food, wine, friendship, love and, of course, Paris. If Meryl Streep were a reduction sauce you would want to bathe in her.
Perhaps I’m being unfair to the late Nora Ephron. She made some turkeys even Child wouldn’t touch, but Ephron loved food, loved smart women, and she loved her husband, the veteran writer Nick Pileggi. So the beef bourguignon, her two protagonists, and their two successful marriages are realistically, intelligently, and lovingly portrayed. The present-day scenes with Amy Adams came in for some critical bashing and, while they can’t compare with the Parisian delights of Julia’s journey of self-discovery, Adams holds her own. I’m tempted to say she is “perky”, and she is, but she is also grouchy, self-involved, and frivolous. In other words, she’s a flesh and blood person and Adams, playing second fiddle to Streep again after their previous pairing in Doubt is, if nothing else, learning a hell of a lot about acting. The idea of crosscutting between Julia’s past and Julie’s present may be gimmicky, but it is essential in understanding Child’s continued influence in contemporary kitchens.
Ephron herself had been around long enough to know what audiences and women want. And this confection, which on paper must have looked like just another unwieldy major studio misfire, proves that sometimes the machinery of Hollywood clicks into place. Julie and Julia is far from a masterpiece, but if you want to see two women at the top of their game, then Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep deliver an almost perfect soufflé.