Eugene Weekly : Movies : 8.13.09


Cooking For Two
Savoring some delicious moments
by Molly Templeton

JULIE & JULIA: Written and directed by Nora Ephron. Based on the books Julie and Julia by Julie Powell and My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme. Starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci and Chris Messina. Columbia Pictures, 2009. PG-13. 124 minutes.

Meryl Streep as Julia Child

I cannot count the superlatives used to describe Meryl Streep’s performance as Julia Child in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia — and I’ve been trying to avoid reading the reviews. Streep, cleverly (if sometimes obviously) made to tower like the 6’2” Julia, tips toward people as if she smells something she likes on them; she’s breathless, and her voice is unmistakable. If you don’t come to the film with a great love for Child, it may take a few minutes to adjust, to start seeing Julia Child rather than Meryl Streep turning in another major performance. When you do, though, Julie & Julia snaps into place: There she is, the Julia who hasn’t found her place in culinary history yet. Streep is airborne, a bumbling yet appealing creature in flight. When the film shifts to the story of Julie Powell (Amy Adams), it settles back down to earth, finding a lovely symmetry in the stories of two women who find themselves, and their passions, in the kitchen.

In 2002 New York, Julie has just moved into a Queens walkup with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina). Her job is less than fulfilling, and most of her friends are terrible. In 1948 France — a place gilded and so warmly lit it hardly looks real — Julia and her husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci), have just arrived. Julia loves everything, charms everyone and really doesn’t know what to do with herself. What does she like to do? Eat, which, as they note over one of many delectable dinners, she and Paul are very good at. What’s Julie good at? She’s not sure. She wrote half of a novel once. Over a simple dinner — and in a slightly awkward conversation — she arrives at the notion of writing a blog as she cooks her way through Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. One year; 524 recipes. You do the math. 

Adams has the fairly thankless role, the contemporary 30ish woman who doesn’t know what she wants in life; worse, she finds herself through blogging, a notion sure to make plenty of eyes roll. She’s no Julia Child, sure, but no one can be. And were Julie & Julia simply about the towering, inimitable Child, the film would lose part of its strength: Julia, in Nora Ephron’s script, is very nearly the perfect creature Julie imagines her to be, and thus Julie, with her meltdowns and small but believable fights with her husband, brings in the human-sized part of the story. (Though to be fair, the cinematic Julie is also less dramatic, and less prone to enjoying her vodka gimlets, than the one in the book.) 

Even with the difference in scale — Julia larger than life, living well wherever Paul is sent by his government job; Julie small and ordinary and concerned with the number of comments on her blog — Ephron lines up their paths just so. Child’s gorgeous French apartment and Powell’s tiny Queens kitchen turn out to be the same place: where change starts. Both lives are an argument against the obnoxious notion that one must know who and what one wants to be by the ripe old age of 25. And both relationships are proof that there can be romance and sex and sweetness between married couples, even over the age of 40.

In fact, Julie & Julia is full of things often thought to be near-impossible in Hollywood movies: It’s a film about women, as A.O. Scott pointed out in The New York Times, that’s not about “the desperate pursuit of men.” Instead, it’s about what women need outside of and beyond relationships, and how hard it can be to find those things, even if it seems you’ve got everything else. It has couples where the women are taller and — shock! — the partners appear to be fairly close in age. The most emotional moments pass quietly but still heartbreakingly. Failure is met with frustration but little high drama. Cheese and butter are praised, and only the most grating characters deny themselves the pleasure of enjoying a good meal. It needn’t be a perfect meal — or a perfect film — to be worth savoring.