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Nora Ephron: Julie & Julia (2009)

Better at the first blush than the long follow-through

by Chris Knipp
19 August 2009

Ms. Ephron takes a questionable step in choosing to toggle back and forth between scenes in the life of Julia Child and the drab outer-borough strivings of Julie Powell.

The whole trouble with the otherwise charming and very well acted new Nora Epron movie, "Julie & Julia," is that it's totally lopsided. There's one half that we'd love to have much more of, and another we could quite easily do without. This is several great performances, but only half of a great movie.

This happens because of two gimmicks, neither of which seems particularly brilliant. Julie Powell, an ambitious and frustrated women in Queens who wanted to escape her job and become a writer, in the year 2002 devised the gimmick of preparing all the 500-some recipes of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days and describing the process in a blog. And now Ms. Ephron has devised her own gimmick of splicing scenes from the book made from this blog together with scenes from Julie Child's book, My Life in France, which takes place mostly in the late Forties and Fifties. The cookbook came out in 1961, and at the end there's a scene set then when the book comes in the mail to the Childs' house in America. Ms. Ephron takes a questionable step in choosing to toggle back and forth between scenes in the life of Julia Child—an American icon with a revolutionary effect on American sophistication about food, whose life in post-war France was glamorous and amusing—and the drab outer-borough strivings of Julie Powell. Though Amy Adams, who plays Powell, is cute and appealing and even subtle, her scenes can hardly hope to compete with the ones celebrating Meryl Streep's joyous, irrepressible version of Julia Child.

Chris Messina, who plays Julie Powell's husband Eric, again is appealing—both stories concern good marriages with understanding husbands who nurtured their wives' difficult paths to fame and success—but he can hardly compete with the likes of Staney Tucci as Paul Child, Julia's husband. Tucci and Streep are a already a team, though there could hardly be more of a contrast between their roles this time and their earlier triumph in "The Devil Wears Prada," in which Meryl plays the ice queen fashion mag maven and Stanley plays her very gay right-hand man.

Julia Child is a character full of joie de vivre, an enthusiast fazed by nothing and nobody. It must be admitted that, force of nature though Streep's Julia is, and delightful though it is to watch the scenes in which she wrestles with the mean Paris Cordon Bleu woman director Madame Brassart (played by former French Vogue editor Joan Juliet Buck), or delights in restaurant food, or gets sexy with her husband, of bones a goose or flops an omelette, the fascination of evil is such that Streep's Miranda Priestly is even more fun to watch in "Prada." Guilty pleasures are the best, and nice characters finish last.

There is a failure in Ephron's pleasing but bland writing here, too. Her protagonist might have had a bracing dash of wickedness in her. There are obvious hints—even in the end of the film itself—that the real Julia Child could have snits or be pretty darn mean, for all her ebullience. When Julie's blog gets publicized, Julia disapproves of the whole project, as if to say that the important half of this movie has no use for the other half. In her dramatization of the Forties-Fifties-Sixties Julia Child (the later periods quickly rushed through) Ephron doesn't dare show us that. She is more successful at pumping up the giddy level of sophisticated comedy, as happens when Julia's even taller sister Dorothy (Jane Lynch) comes for a visit and quickly finds a husband.

Nor does it dare show all the depths and shallows of Ms. Powell's year-long struggle with an increasingly impatient husband and a heartbreaking job with the Lower Manhattan Development. We know from the screen version that Julie burned her Bœuf bourguignon and lost some aspic. But out of 524 recipes in 365 days, more must have gone wrong than that.

The value of this film remains the very real though partial one that Streep is wonderful to watch. So is Tucci—so reassuring, like a well-tailored suit. Streep's Julia towers (the original was 6'2"), a large, robust woman with a lusty chuckle, and she has a "flutey" voice that stays high but has a hearty lower note in her famous, almost threatening way of exclaiming "Bon appétit!" The way she sang that out at the end of her hugely successful cooking TV show, "The French Chef" (which Ephron and Streep also recreate) seemed silly but irresistible. The woman had such fun! She loved life. Streep's impersonation isn't meant to be an exact one, but you buy it. Her character comes to life, even if the film depicts her by playing only on a few bubbly notes.

The best times in the film are the early ones, when Paul and Julia first arrive in France in November of 1948, because he's been posted to Paris in a State Department job (they met while jointly serving in the OSS in China). The film nicely captures that magic moment when they savor sole meunière swimming in butter in a restaurant in Rouen, and she tells Paul to taste it and he just says, "I know. I know." In retrospect, these moments, and Julia's cooking triumphs, seem frustratingly few, as the film goes on to schematically work through her struggles to put together a French cookbook for Americans in collaboration with Simone Beck (Linda Emond) and the lazy Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey). Movies, especially the kind that constantly interrupt themselves, are better at showing us the first blush than the long follow-through. But Julia Child, who was more serious and less exclamatory than Streep's appealing impersonation reveals, was not only a great enthusiast but a methodical and determined person, with the patience and the reverence for quality that any practitioner of the art of French cuisine must have.

©Chris Knipp 2009. Visit the author's website to read more of his work.

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This story was published on August 19, 2009.