Thursday, August 6, 2009
Julia is more interesting than Julie
Here's my fantasy: At some point during the filming of Julie & Julia, director Nora Ephron had to give instructions to Meryl Streep, who plays master chef Julia Child.
"Just be taller, Meryl,'' Ephron might have said, encouraging Streep to find ways to suggest all of Child's 6 feet, two inches.
Streep, whose performance as a nun in Doubt was good but showy, seems to be turning into a special effect. Raising her voice a couple of octaves and trying her best to appear large, Streep dominates every scene in which she appears. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, but it gives you a clue about what you may find most memorable about Julie & Julia, an enjoyable repast that winds up a few courses short of a really great meal.
Allow me to continue with a digression. If the birth dates on IMBd are correct, Streep is 60 and Stanley Tucci is 48. I mention the real ages of the actors because in Julie & Julia, Tucci and Streep play a married couple, and, to me, they never seemed precisely right together. Tucci plays Child's husband, Paul. The real Paul was 10 years older than Julia, a woman who had a voice like a bird and a body like a power forward.
End of digression. Despite age differences, Streep and Tucci orchestrate a nice enough duet. Tucci's Paul comes across as a meticulous man who takes impish delight in all things libidinous, and Streep seasons her performance with displays of wit. Julia and Paul both loved to eat, and watching them savor a favorite dish qualifies as something to behold, two extremely articulate people struck dumb in their pleasure.
Unfortunately, this breezy movie divides into two stories. Child's formative years in Paris, beginning in 1948, are contrasted with the blogging life of Julie Powell (Amy Adams). Powell is a contemporary author and foodie, who tries to establish herself as a writer by blogging about the year she spends cooking every recipe in Child's classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Streep and Adams, who worked together in Doubt, share no screen time. Ephron alternates between the two stories, sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. Child's My Life in France and Powell's book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, served as source material for the script, also by Ephron. The story of Child's Parisian adventures proves the more interesting of these two food-obsessed tales.
Paul Child served in the American embassy in Paris. Julia, who was 36 at the time of Paul's posting, seemed at loose ends. After a few forays into womanly activities -- hat making, for example -- she decided to learn about food, enrolling in the prestigious Cordon Bleu school. There she competed with unwelcoming men, but still managed to find her calling. Later, Child met Simone Beck (Linda Emond)* and Louisette Bertholle (Helen Carey), the women with whom she eventually co-wrote her classic cookbook.
Adams' character, who works for a New York City program that tries to help people who lost loved ones during the Sept. 11 attack, needs diversion from her depressing job. With encouragement from her husband Chris Messina, she begins her adventures in cooking, which gradually morph into a confidence-building exercise. Aside from a late-picture spat, Messina's Eric supports his wife's pursuits, but contemporary life -- mostly scenes in a Queens apartment -- can't compete with Paris in the '50s.
In sum: Ephron has made a movie for Child fans, foodies and anyone who wants to see Streep slice a mountain of onions. It's a pleasant diversion -- if a little less rich than one might have hoped.
*A reader noted that I misspelled Linda Emond's name. Now fixed.