by Mel Valentin
Nora Ephron’s ("Bewitched," "You’ve Got Mail," "Michael," "Sleepless in Seattle") latest film, "Julie & Julia," is an object lesson that not every book, fiction or, or in this case, non-fiction, should be become the basis for a two-hour theatrical film (a Lifetime movie, maybe). Adapted primarily from Julie Powell’s bestselling book, with an assist from Julie Child’s memoir, "My Life in France," written with her grand-nephew, Alexander Prud'homme, "Julie & Julia" may be, as someone, somewhere has or will describe it, an “unapologetic chick flick,” but that also means it has a limited appeal to a narrow demographic that ultimately wastes the talents of its co-leads, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.Julie & Julia starts off in 1949 as Julia Child (Streep) and her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), settle in Paris, France. A diplomat, Paul works in the U.S. Embassy as a cultural attaché. Bored in her role as a housewife and occasional hostess, Julia tries several different activities until she settles on cooking, French cooking to be exact. A natural in the kitchen, Julia learns to cook elaborate dishes, but it’s the fortuitous meeting with Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), two Frenchwomen who share Julia’s passion for cooking. They also want to write a French cookbook for American audiences and decide to enlist Julia’s involvement. The strong-willed Julia eventually takes over the project, a project that leads, after years of struggle, to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961 and eventually a career as a television personality.
"See it, if you see it at all, for Meryl Streep's performance."
In 2002, Julie Powell (Amy Adams), an employee (and cubicle drone) with the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., lives a life of quiet desperation. As her 30th birthday approaches, Julie’s accomplishments or, more accurately, lack thereof, lead her down an unlikely path. After a spontaneous conversation with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), Julie decides to start a Salon.com blog (yes, Salon.com gets generous production placement here). Her blog will detail her efforts to cook the 524 recipes Child’s mammoth tome, all in exactly one year. Over the course of a year, Julie juggles work, cooking practically every night, and a strained marriage (thanks, or rather no thanks, to her self-absorbed, obsessive behavior), but her readership grows and she begins to receive media attention, culminating in the book deal that led to the film we’ve just spent two hours watching (even the end credits admit as much).
While Julie walks away with a book and movie deal, we’re left holding an empty shopping bag. Sure, the results of Julie and Julia’s cooking will leave epicureans salivating, but anyone looking for narrative nourishment will be left, if not famished by Julie’s calorie-free, drama-free story, then eager to find a more fulfilling moviegoing experience. Julie’s decision to cook everything in Julia Child’s cookbook comes off, at best, an exercise in self-indulgence (especially given the post-9-11 time period) with minimal emotional or dramatic stakes, and, at worst, a shallow stunt unworthy of the screen time Ephron gives Julie’s “story.”. If Julie’s modest misadventures in cooking are bearable, it’s due to Amy Adams, once again essaying an optimistic, can-do heroine.Of course, that’s only one-half of "Julie & Julia." The other half’s focus on Julia Child’s progression from a diplomat’s wife to an internationally cookbook author makes for a more involving drama, in part because of the period and setting (roughly 1950s France), the intrusion of the Communist witch hunts orchestrated by Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin that ultimately ensnares Paul, the loving, affectionate relationship between Julia and Paul as the power dynamic in their relationship shifts from Paul to Julia, and, of course, Meryl Streep’s performance. Streep captures Child’s singsong voice and her mannerisms. At least initially, Streep’s performance borders on caricature, but Streep’s talent for nuance adds layers and shadings to Julia Child, elevating Child from caricature to character. It’s a feat few actresses can accomplish, but luckily for Ephron (and us), Streep can.
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originally posted: 08/07/09 07:00:00