Julie & Julia opens Friday throughout the Triangle
There's plenty of food in Julie & Julia, and a surprising amount of sex, too. You're not allowed to do much of either in the theater, of course (and no, in the context of this film, consuming Twizzlers is not eating), but there's enormous pleasure to be had in the spectacle of Meryl Streep grabbing a beloved, larger-than-life character and chewing the scenery (and the Sole Meunière) for all it's worth. As Julia Child, the breathless enthusiast who rescued American cooking for a generation, Streep is an absolute delight. Poor Amy Adams doesn't have a chance.
We learn that Julia was the enthusiastically epicurean, 6-foot-2 wife of Paul Child, a genial fellow Francophile and U.S. diplomat whose career would become haunted by the McCarthyism that was casting a pall over American life—just as surely as canned and frozen foods dominated America's newly abundant household kitchens. Stanley Tucci is charmingly self-effacing as Julia's adoring (and reliably priapic) husband, and he encourages her to find a skill that will interest her. And so she lands at the Cordon Bleu cooking school where, after the obligatory early humiliations, she finds her calling. She chops a small mountain of onions, flips omelets and learns to kill lobster. Here, the actress and the character seem united: Streep is famed for her meticulous preparation. Of course her Julia accent is spot on, but she also shows that she put in practice time with a heavy and sharp chef's knife. Julia's discovery of her joy—as another character in the film puts it—is also Streep's discovery. It's almost impossible to watch Streep's performance without a smile on your face.
But that's only half the movie. The other half takes place in the recent past, 2002-03, when a young woman named Julie Powell decided to improve her so-called life by blogging about cooking every recipe in Child's magnum opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, over the course of a year. As Julie, Amy Adams seems to be having more fun than when she was last obliterated by Streep (in last winter's dour Doubt), but there's just no justifying spending so much time with her character. Nonetheless, Julie & Julia cuts back and forth between parallel narratives: Here we see the rise of an icon; there we see the rise of a briefly famous blogger. There's not much wrong with Adams' performance; it's just that Child is an artist and a giant, and Adams' character is, by comparison, a whiny, striving midget. Yet the film insists on dramatizing parallels in their lives as young married women looking for a calling, even straining to equate the influence of McCarthyism on the Childs with the post-9/11 political paranoia of a few years ago.
Still, despite the false equivalence, credit is due to director and writer Nora Ephron: There's a surprising, bittersweet development at the end of the film that the filmmakers easily could have left out, but chose to include. (It's also possible that this plot point was included at the insistence of Julia Child's estate; in any event, curious people will want to research this online afterward.) Whatever the motivation for the film's honesty at the end, this small point reveals something about cyberspace and its illusions of intimacy and experience. There's a big, big difference between Julia and Julie.