With just one word — "Butter!" — she's got you.
Meryl Streep slathers so much salacious joie de vivre onto that one line early in Julie & Julia that we know we're in for a glorious ride.
Because, unfortunately, this movie is not just about Julia Child, godmother of French cooking in America, TV legend (via PBS and Dan Aykroyd) and all-around great dame. It's about Julia and Julie: Julie Powell, office drone, who in 2002 embarked on the seemingly quixotic task of cooking every recipe in Child's classic tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and writing a blog about it.
Nora Ephron's screenplay is, as the tagline announces, "based on two true stories": Child's autobiographical saga of her own introduction to French cuisine, My Life in France, and Powell's best-selling book (based on her Salon blog), Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. And while the real Julie Powell seems, from her writing, to be as gutsy and iconoclastic as the woman who inspired her, Amy Adams' performance in the role is all twinkle and pout — and pretty soon just a distraction from what we really want to see: more Meryl.
Not that it's all Adams' fault. She can be a charming presence on screen, as she's proven in films like Junebug and Enchanted. But neither her performance nor Ephron's screenplay captures Powell's gritty authenticity, as in a blog passage like this one: "Long Island City is not awash in fancy amenities, like, say, pizza joints. Our choices turned out to be Domino's and Mister Wok. It was a difficult decision — crap pizza made by a bunch of right-wing fundamentalist crazies, or crap Chinese food made by some probably perfect nice people in a place that smelled strongly of mouse shit?"
The screenplay's plodding structure — Julia-then-Julie-then-Julia-then-Julie — doesn't help, either. Certainly there are parallels between the two: happily married but professionally unfulfilled, they both find their true calling through the joys of cooking. But the deck is stacked: We start with scenes of sigh-worthy late-1940s Paree, accordion music and all. Then the action switches to 2002 NYC, which is of course dirty and crowded and utterly unromantic. And unconvincing: for instance, Julie meets her upscale professional women friends for lunch and they're all grotesque cellphone-addicted caricatures, apparently to highlight the comparative moral probity of Julie. But it's hard to muster up sympathy for someone who's just soooo bummed because she has to sit and answer phones from bereaved 9/11 family members all day. Yup, that was the job the real Julie Powell had, dealing with claims at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, but there's something uncomfortable about its use as a chick-flick plot device — a point to be breezily touched upon, a burden that distracts our heroine from the kitchen.
The storytelling in general is curiously unimaginative. It's always difficult to make the act of writing cinematic, but Ephron's attempts are prosaic to a fault. We watch Powell type whole paragraphs on her blog (great product placement for blogspot, by the way). We hear Child read letters from her sister. We listen to phone calls. We listen to voicemails. And there's an inherent lack of suspense; when, after successfully replicating numerous Child recipes, Powell finally has a meltdown about an hour into the movie (flat out on the kitchen floor, in one of Adams' better moments), there's nothing really at stake. We know she'll eventually complete the project and write her book because we're watching the friggin' movie, as the real Powell might say.
Tellingly, there isn't the same problem with the Julia Child segments. We of course know that Child will be successful, too — wildly so. But Streep holds our interest; as an actress, she is so alive in the moment that she retains the ability to surprise. The performance is not without flaws: Did Julia Child really glimmer and glow all the time? But in numerous quiet moments, we see inside Child because Streep, physically and emotionally, inhabits the character: registering joy and heartbreak almost simultaneously when she learns her sister is pregnant; her breathless reaction when she discovers she's going to be published; the quiet (and sexy) domestic moments with her beloved husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, in a nicely modulated performance). And, of course, there's Streep's abundant sense of humor; it's perfectly matched to a woman who exuded jollity, but could also puncture a stuffed shirt with the best of 'em. (The raspberry she mischievously blows at a pompous French cooking teacher is just one of many triumphant moments.)
The food, is of course, gorgeous, and along with everyone else who will see this movie I will deliver the obligatory warning: Don't see it on an empty stomach. Credit goes not just to the food stylists but the actors; as Julie's husband Eric, Chris Messina is particularly effective in showing his voluptuous enjoyment of almost everything his wife dishes out. The entire supporting cast is quite good, with Jane Lynch a particular knockout as Julia's equally big-boned, forthright sister. The two share a wonderful moment appraising themselves in the mirror before an evening out, both decked out in '50s A-line frocks. "Pretty good," they begin, and then, dissolving into laughter, "but not great."
Which could sum up the film. It's unashamedly, even tyranically, a feel-good film. And it's true, you'll feel good watching Meryl Streep. But whenever it shifts to Julie, you'll be playing a waiting game. Case in point: Julie and hubby are shown enjoying Streep-as-Julia in a cleverly reenacted TV clip from Child's French Chef program. Problem is, we can't just watch the clip — the camera keeps shifting back to Julie and hubby so we can see them enjoying it. OK, fine, you feel like saying, they're in this movie, too — but let's get back to the real thing.