Julie & Julia (Review)

Streep cooks up another great performance, but the film lacks spice

Aug 5, 2009 at 2:06 pm

It only took 30 years, but Meryl Streep has done it: She’s the queen of summer movies.

I know. The audacity, right? This is the time of year, after all, when youth is supposed to be served even more than it is the other nine months. Yet here we have a Woman of a Certain Age crashing the party with regularity.

A few years ago, she scored a summer counterpunch with The Devil Wears Prada; last year she hit again with Mamma Mia! In summer 2009, Julie & Julia could prove definitively that movies for adult women can hit triple-digit millions at the box office, even when the temperatures flirt with triple digits — provided those adult women are spending time with the greatest living American actress.

Streep continues to delight in an effervescent turn as cooking legend Julia Child, whose biography makes up half of this fact-based trifle from writer/director Nora Ephron. We meet Julia in 1949 Paris, where she has just moved with her diplomat husband Paul (Stanley Tucci, Streep’s Prada co-star). Faced with long, tedious days, Julia eventually decides to enroll in culinary classes at the famed Cordon Bleu, beginning a journey that will lead her to cookbook-writing/TV-hosting fame.

Her counterpart is Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a frustrated would-be novelist in 2002 Manhattan working the horrible job of fielding calls from people seeking post-9/11 assistance. Seeking her own inspiration and release from monotony, she turns to her avocation for cooking, opting to launch a blog in which she’ll chronicle preparing all 524 recipes from Julia Child’s seminal cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days, testing the patience of her devoted husband Eric (Chris Messina).

Ephron alternates between her two stories at predictable intervals, attempting where she can to establish parallels between her two heroines: career restlessness, relocation to a new home, birthday dinners. It’s a narrative gamble, because the approach practically demands that the two stories prove equally charming or else risk an audience’s impatience with getting back to the “good” one.

And, on a certain level, it sort of succeeds. Ephron still knows how to craft clever dialogue and how to create a few exquisitely embarrassing situations for her protagonists. Adams continues to prove herself an endearing screen presence, and there’s an approachable arc to her efforts at finding self-confidence in her skills as both writer and chef. Streep, meanwhile, does exactly what she always seems to do on screen: make inhabiting another person look effortless. Taking her cue from Julia’s high-pitched trill and mop of unruly curls, Streep turns her into a creature of almost boundless energy and enthusiasm — and for an audience, that kind of enthusiasm can become infectious.

But there’s a fundamental problem with Julia Child’s story: Her life wasn’t all that complicated. While Ephron acknowledges the quirks at the heart of Julia’s personality — most notably, the imposing height that probably contributed to making her a later-in-life bride who never had children — there’s very little in the way of actual drama that she ever needs to confront. And the dramatics that do arise — including Paul getting caught up in the anti-Communist investigations of the 1950s — don’t necessarily feel organic to Julia’s journey. Her half of the film takes the episodic style of a typical movie biography and dampens it even more with the reassuring but predictable rhythms of a romantic comedy. As a result, the force of Streep’s performing personality overwhelms a largely inert story. And even in the more generally satisfying “Julie” portion of the film, it’s telling that the biggest laugh comes not from anything Ephron has written but from a scene in which Julie and Eric watch the vintage Saturday Night Live sketch in which Dan Aykroyd impersonates Julia Child.

Ephron also commits one major — even if historically accurate — mistake late in the film, at a point when Julie hears about the then-still-living Julia Child’s reaction to her blog project. The information seems totally out of character with the Julia we’ve been spending time with, inspiring a viewer to wonder what we’re missing from her story, or whether this perky Julia is an idealized figment of Julie’s imagination.

Streep is so thoroughly engaging that, of course, we want to believe that her version is the real deal. If she’s got the charisma to rule the summer, she can bring spice to a sometimes bland dish. Grade: C

Opens Aug. 7. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.