If “Julie & Julia” seems a little farfetched, that’s only because it focuses on two women who each have success stories that are stranger than fiction. In fact, one of them seemed as if she were Superwoman – not only was Julia Child a hit on TV, but she co-wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which led to something of a domestic renaissance for American households stuck in the Dark Ages, when the most exciting thing in food was Morton Salt.
One of her numerous followers was Julie Powell, who wrote a blog about her attempt to make every recipe in Child’s 700-page cookbook. Although both Powell and Child probably worked harder to succeed than a movie like this lets on, it makes no apologies for how it portrays them, possibly taking a cue from one of Child’s sayings: “No matter what happens in the kitchen,” she said, “never apologize.”
Meryl Streep plays Julia, who comes to Paris with her husband, an American diplomat named Paul (Stanley Tucci). Not wanting to be stuck inside with nothing to do, Julia considers taking up different hobbies. Once she discovers that playing bridge simply won’t do, she eventually finds inspiration in the kitchen, namely at the famed Le Cordon Bleu cooking school.
When she realizes that no books on French cooking are printed in English, Julia hatches a plan with two new friends, Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and Loisette Berthold (Helen Carey), to introduce French cuisine to American readers. The result, of course, forever changed how people cooked, but not before it was rejected by publishers who thought impatient housewives wanted something simpler.
The film’s other heroine, played by Amy Adams, just moved from Brooklyn to Queens with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina). Julie’s bugged by the fact that she’s not as successful as her working-girl friends, and that her job is depressing. (She works at the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., where she deals with people who call in with insurance problems linked to Sept. 11.)
Her worship of Julia Child leads to a strange mission: She’ll take on all of the recipes in Child’s cookbook, and she’ll try to get though the whole thing in just one year. Since it contains 524 recipes, it’s anyone’s guess how she managed to cook them and still find the time to sit down and write about them all.
It’s interesting to see how each of them finds her calling, but it’s the performances that make the film special. Even though it’s a safe bet that an actress like Streep would be able to turn in a terrific performance, it’s still worth noting that she’s the strongest talent here. On top of being the giddy chef we saw on TV, Streep manages to portray Child as a real person, one who’s capable of having desires and fears – when she learns that her book will finally be published, she seems empowered and humble in the same moment.
Emond’s performance as Simone Beck is great fun, too. It doesn’t contain the same emotional depth, though – Emond gives her role the comic spirit it deserves, which works well in a romantic comedy like this.
As for screenwriter and director Nora Ephron, she adds another layer to the material with interesting angles and shot composition. Keep an eye out for stuff that’s shown diagonally, as if half of the screen were leaning on the other. That might be appropriate in a movie like this, where Julie perseveres by leaning on Julia mentally, as if she were a long-lost relative. It always helps to have someone else in the kitchen.