Owing to a scheduling mix-up, I arrived about an hour into Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia the first time it was screened locally. As a result, I saw the second half of the movie then, and went back to see the first half (and stayed for the part I’d already seen) at a later date. I’m actually glad this happened, because I think seeing the end of the film and liking it and thinking about it helped put the overall experience of the film into perspective. It’s easy to watch the film and find it uneven, owing to its structure and the manner in which Meryl Streep embodies Julia Child (this is less a performance than a kind of possession). Knowing this, I think, increased my appreciation for the whole movie on the complete viewing.
If you’re not familiar with the approach taken by Ephron’s film, it’s a dual biopic on the famous chef Julia Child (Streep) and the not-as-famous blogger Julie Powell (Amy Adams), who made her way—and her name—by preparing all 524 recipes in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and blogging about them. The film—drawn from Powell’s Julie & Julia and Child’s My Life in France—essentially tells the story of how Julia Child became Julia Child and Julie Powell became Julie Powell. More correctly, it might be said that the film shows how each found herself and created herself. To this end, Ephron has crafted a film that cuts back and forth between each woman’s life (the two never share the screen) and it can be a little daunting.
More than daunting, however, is the inescapable fact that Amy Adams is faced with the nearly hopeless task of competing with Meryl Streep’s Julia Child. It isn’t as if Adams can’t hold her own with Streep. She already proved she could in last year’s Doubt. The problem—if you choose to view it that way—is that Streep has the larger-than-life role of a character of true iconic proportions. Child was an immense personality who, in her own way, actually changed the world (or at least America) with her cookbooks and her TV shows. Julie Powell is simply not in this realm—nor does the film attempt to place her there.
In a sense, what Julie & Julia offers is almost two movies in one. With the Julia half, you get a slick Hollywood product that hits all the expected—and in this case oh-so-right—notes. It’s a lush, rich period piece as magnificently satisfying as the most complex Child recipe—and as polished and sophisticated, but with a touch of unpretentious quirk. With the Julie half, you’re presented with a more low-key work—almost like an indie film that’s been worked into a more mainstream movie. Were you to take the Julie half out of the movie and make it a film of its own, it would be a perfectly fine little indie comedy.
Within the broader context of Julie & Julia it suffers by comparison. There’s just no way that Julie Powell can compete with Julia Child’s casual outrageousness. There is no moment in Julie’s story that is as effortlessly funny as Julia matter-of-factly instructing the duck she’s trussing to “put your legs together, darling.” Julia has the added advantage, it might be noted, of coming to us as a person we’re already familiar with. But Julie’s story is the justification of Julia’s legacy—she is the actual “servantless cook” for whom Julia was writing—and her part of the film actually serves to make the overall movie work the way it does. Looking at the film in this light reveals the cleverness of Ephron’s approach.
This may not be a great movie—in fact, it almost certainly isn’t—but it’s a sweet, funny, enjoyable work with characters it’s possible to care about and fine performances straight across the board. Streep is a marvel and Adams is marvelously appealing, but don’t sell the other players short. This is especially true of the always wonderful Stanley Tucci, who hasn’t had a role this good since his last pairing with Streep in The Devil Wears Prada (2006). For pure entertainment, Julie & Julia scores pretty darn high marks—and it might even be inspirational on some level. I know I’m determined to master that stuffed-duck-in-pastry recipe before the year is out. Rated PG-13 for brief strong language and some sensuality.