Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, already highly regarded by their peers and audiences alike, don’t need a success like “Julie & Julia” to bolster their reputations. But Nora Ephron, the film’s writer and director, does. It is she who has been on a losing streak for the last decade, the luster of hits like “You’ve Got Mail” and “Sleepless in Seattle” having faded, replaced by more recent debacles like 2005’s “Bewitched” and 2000’s execrable “Hanging Up.” Ephron emerges as the victor in the breezy and thoroughly delightful comedy that is “Julie & Julia.”
The film is of unusual provenance. It’s the first movie I’m aware of to be based on a blog, albeit one that was later turned into a book, “Julie & Julia,” about a woman’s efforts to cook everything in Julia Child’s first cookbook. It’s also half-based on another book, Child’s memoir “My Life in France.” The result is a film that tells two separate but parallel stories, featuring women who live 3,000 miles and 40 years apart. The connective thread: food.
Julie Powell (Adams) is a frustrated writer in Queens, N.Y., in 2002, working as a low-level drone in a government office. Her escape is her love of cooking, which her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), is only too happy to encourage. At his suggestion, she starts a blog describing her page-by-page tackling of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” with the goal of cooking all 524 recipes in 365 days. As she does it, she imagines her idol, the indomitable Julia Child, watching over her like a patron saint with a warbly voice.
Intercut with this story is the story of Child herself, played by Streep, living in Paris in the early 1950s with her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), who works for the U.S. State Department. Julia doesn’t speak French and, despite her love of eating, has no natural inclination toward cooking. But she sets out to learn (to speak French and to cook), unfailingly supported by her adoring Paul.
There is not much more plot than that. It was around the one-hour mark that I noticed the film hadn’t introduced any major conflicts. Not that it matters — watching Adams stumble endearingly through Child’s recipes while Streep waltzes through the Cordon Bleu cooking school is entertainment enough. When the conflicts do finally arrive, they are dealt with handily, as if Ephron didn’t want to dampen the good time we were having.
This is reflected in the two marriages on display. Neither woman cooks alone, after all, and it’s the husbands who get to help with the eating. Paul and Julia Child, if the film is to be believed, never had so much as a minor tiff. Whether that’s true or not, watching them interact as an adoring couple without a single unkind word to say to each other is a pleasure — aided, of course, by Streep and Tucci’s fine performances. (As always, Streep embodies her character with complete mastery. And since Child was 6’2″, Ephron avoids shooting Streep’s feet, lest we see the platform shoes she’s wearing.)
Julie and Eric are an enviable couple, too, playful and honest and in love. Their obligatory fight over her obsession with the project and her neglect of him mercifully lasts only two scenes. It’s the sort of thing that you know technically needs to be in the story, but why dwell on it? Get back to the cooking!
I don’t think the film has any great truths to share about food, marriage, or anything else, nor do I think it means to. It’s nothing more than two light tales about two plucky women, structured as a series of scenes in which we get to watch them enjoy themselves. When Julia’s sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch), who’s as tall and loud as she is, comes to visit in Paris, I’m thinking: I would watch a weekly TV series about the misadventures of Julia and Dorothy as played by Meryl Streep and Jane Lynch, with Stanley Tucci tiptoeing around as Julia’s bemused husband. When Julie is discovering the joys of being a blogger who has devoted readers and fans, I’m thinking: What a rewarding thing for her to experience! I’m happy for her. I’m happy for Mrs. Child. And I’m happy for Nora Ephron, too.
B+ (2 hrs., 3 min.; )