© 2009 Ray Wong
Based on two true stories, Julie Child's (coauthored by Alex Prud'homme) My Life in France and Julie Powell's Julie and Julia, this film is neither a biopic nor a coming of age story. Like The Hours, it's a story about the connection between two women who have never even met.
Julie Powell (Amy Adams) is an aspiring writer who is stuck in a cubical job working for the government, handling insurance claims after 9/11. The sob stories she hears every day and the fact that she's living in Queens bring her down, and she feels her life is without a purpose despite having a wonderfully attentive husband, Eric (Chris Messina). She needs a writing project, with a deadline, to keep her creative juices flowing. She decides to spend a year going through Julia Child's 564 recipes in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Eric also convinces her to start a blog chronicling her odyssey.
Meanwhile, we get to meet Julie's idol, Julia Child (Meryl Streep), who has just moved to Paris with her diplomat husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci) in 1949. Bored and -- just like Julie -- without a purpose, Julia enters a cooking school because she adores food, especially French cuisine. At first she's the laughing stock to the French chefs, but soon she finds her real calling, and her talent does not go unnoticed. Eventually, she meets writers Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), who are working on a cookbook. Hoping to target the American market, Beck and Bertholle convince Julia to become their collaborator. Little do they know Julia's ambition and talent are going to take over the project.
Back in 2002, New York, Julie has her ups and downs during her year. She has her doubt about finishing what she's started, and she's become more and more obsessed and self-absorbed, and failure scares her to death. Her neurosis is driving Eric batty, and her project distracts her from her job and friendships. Her only real companion is Julia Child, whom she hopes to meet one day (and not so secretly she hopes to have read her blog). By following the recipes day in and day out, it's as if Julia is right there with her through thick and thin.
I start to wonder if there's anything Meryl Streep (Mama Mia) can't do. As the legend, Streep encapsulates Child's spirit, mannerisms, speech patterns perfectly. With cinematic magic, she also appears, literally, bigger than life (Child was a very tall woman). Streep's performance is full of nuances, delight, and an optimism that is simply contagious. Whenever she's on screen, the actress and her character lighten everything up. She also has a great rapport with her co-stars, most particularly Stanley Tucci (Swing Votes) as her doting husband.
Amy Adams (Doubt) reunites with Streep except she does not have any scenes with the latter. The actress returns to being cute and charming, and her performance is also nuanced and attentive. However, the problem is with her character: she doesn't do much except whining about her situations. The most she does is to blog about her problems. Talk about lack of drama. Therefore, the character of Julie Powell is rather dull and ordinary, and that is a huge contrast with the larger-than-life Julia Child.
The supporting cast is superb. Stanley Tucci is wonderful as Paul Child. Understated, he has great chemistry with Streep. You simply believe in the relationship between Julia and Paul, and you can't help but love the man. As the other husband, Chris Messina (Away We Go) is marvelous as Eric Powell. He exudes the kind of charm and kindness that are crucial for his role as the supportive spouse. Linda Emond (Across the Universe) is delightful as Child's collaborator Simone Beck. As Louisette Bertholle, Helen Carey (21) is somewhat overshadowed by the other two women, but the trio has great rapport with one another. Jane Lynch (Role Models) made an impressive cameo as Julia Child's sister.
Written and directed by Nora Ephron, who has taken a long, deserved break after the miserable Bewitched, the screenplay brings back her usual lightness and lovely core about love and friendship. The writer-director is best known for her characters and dialogue (and less so about plot), and Julie and Julia is no different. Peppered with delectable bits of frothy dialogue, the screenplay focuses on the relationships surrounding the two characters, separated by time and space. Ephron successfully juxtaposes them: New York vs. Paris, a bored housewife vs. a bored cubicle drone, a chef vs. a wannabe cook, a writer vs. a would-be writer. She also took a few opportunities to take a stab at conservatism and the Republicans.
What Ephron lacks is true drama and conflicts. Surely, the characters do go through their ups and downs, trials and tribulations, all of which feel trivial at times. The dispute between Julie and Eric, for example, seems forced and contrived. In fact, it does seem like there are two movies in one, here. I have a feeling that Ephron based the story on Julie Powell's book, but felt that the story was a little thin so she added the part of Julia Child's biopic. The result is that Julia Child's story comes to life while Julie Powell's story dulls in comparison. It is partly, I think, due to Meryl Streep's sensational portrayal of Child. That's not to say Amy Adams gave a poor performance; Streep simply did better.
Ephron's direction is crisp and light, especially when she's covering Child's story. The period feel is superb and Paris is absolutely charming. The use of food, of course, is insurmountable to the story, and boy, does it make me hungry. The scrumptious parade of food on display is itself a character in the film. It certainly makes me want to go out and get the book and try all the recipes myself.
The movie is very entertaining despite the lack of real conflicts and drama. It's light, fluffy, and interesting, especially Julia Child's life in Paris and the eventual publication of her first book. As a writer, that is of tremendous interest to me. Still, I wonder if the movie would have been better if Julie Powell's part of the story is completely taken out, leaving us with a true Child biopic. It just seems like such a missed opportunity. As is, the film is a delicious piece of cake, but nothing substantial. There's nothing wrong with a nice piece of cake, however. As Julie and Julia would have said: bon appetit!
Stars: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Emond, Helen Carey, Jane Lynch
Director: Nora Ephron
Writer: Nora Ephron (based on both books by Julie Powell and Julia Child/Alex Prud'homme)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief strong language and sensuality
Running Time: 123 Minutes
Script – 7
Performance – 9
Direction – 7
Cinematography – 8
Editing – 8
Production – 8
Total – 7.9 out of 10