We wonder if it is necessary, after all the talk leading up to “Julie & Julia,” to explain who the two women whose names are in the title are. But just in case you’ve been dozing off during food discussions lately, we’ll introduce them. They are Julia Child, the famous chef who died in 2004, and a disciple whom she never met, Julie Powell.
Child came to fame by starting at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, then slaving over a book, with Simone Beck, that would eventually be published in two volumes and become a culinary classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Many more books and cooking classes, and eventually a television career, made Child a household name. She was truly a legend in her own time – for years – and barely had time to slow down before she died at the age of 91.
Julie Powell stepped into the limelight over a period of one year. She utilized a new-media, new-millennium approach to fame — writing a daily blog. This site would eventually attract thousands to read about what was not just a culinary journey but a personal one — a sort of cyberspace version of reality television.
So, what most of us already know about Julia Child is her love of cream and butter, her face and hair and voice, her height, her fine carriage. We remember her humor and sheer love of food. Now that she’s gone, this is ours to own, her legacy to us, along with the many books and videotapes that will keep her name alive. We might not have known that her personal life was as passionate as her cooking, with a supportive husband, Paul (Stanley Tucci of that other foodie film classic, “Big Night”) doting on his Amazon every moment of their married life.
Julie Powell is more of an unknown. She was born up the road in Austin. She and her husband had made a difficult move to Manhattan. Her job is stultifying, the apartment is small and unlovely. She’s a writer, but what has she written? Not much, she complains to her husband. Finally, to fight the despair of not doing something she honestly loves, she decides to cook her way though “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and document the experience. She, too, is married to someone who loves her madly, though he makes it clear that he prefers sex and dinner on a regular basis to awaiting the increasingly irregular meal, not ready to eat until the wee hours of the morning.
The women’s stories offer numerous parallels, which writer-director Nora Ephron ladles out in homespun, often hilarious ways that aren’t subtle but are as comforting as a helping of boeuf bourguignon. Not only that, the movement back and forth between the two lives is masterfully done; the transitions are seamless.
This film isn’t like Ephron’s earlier marriage film with a foodie title, “Heartburn.” In fact, the domestic bliss that Julia Child lives is refreshingly free of strife and as welcome as one of the butter sauces that sends Child into a swoon.
Helping matters immeasurably is Meryl Streep’s Julia Child, who is lovely, charming, nearly indefatigable and never defeated. The snooty woman who headed the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school that Child attended in Paris never accepted the American, despite the fact that her male classmates soon grew to admire her determination. The role had to be an actor’s dream — to portray someone so many of us knew and loved, and to show us some of the things we may not have been aware of. Streep nails the accent, the much imitated, burbly tones that would become a Child trademark.
But more than that, Streep captures Child’s joie de vivre. Her larger-than-life effervescence matches Child’s 6-foot-2 height.
Amy Adams has the tougher role to perform, because Powell isn’t always that likable. Young, unfocused and, well, whiny, the blogger comes across as the opposite of Child. She wants to find herself — and find herself quickly, at that — yet she relies too much on others to help her. The blog idea is her husband’s, the money for the project soon comes from external sources, she lies to her boss. Yet (spoiler alert) she alone makes every recipe in Child’s book essentially on her own, right down to stuffing the live lobsters into the boiling water, with the oh-so-right Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” on the soundtrack.
Powell has been criticized by some as capitalizing on Child’s fame. But doesn’t every creative person stand on someone’s shoulders at some point in his or her career? To her credit, Powell’s homage to Child is more than evident in her words and deeds every step of the way. Child is her inspiration, her mentor, friend and teacher. The fact that it was her ticket to fame wasn’t the reason she set out to do the blog.
Most of you reading this review are probably more interested in the food than anything else the movie has to offer. Let us just say this: “Julie & Julia” will make you hunger for more than most cinema snack bars offer. The food scenes, in fact, make up for the shock therapy of “Food, Inc.” and other recent documentaries about our food supply. Linger on the images of chocolate pie filling poured slowly into a crust. Or of perfect boeuf bourguignon emerging from an oven. Amazingly enough, even the scene of trussing a boned duck, something most of us would never try, manages to coax a smile while kick-starting your taste buds.
In this area, “Julie & Julia” rises like the airiest soufflé, a dish that manages to be ethereal and joyously rich at the same time.
John Griffin contributed to this review
(Photos Jonathan Wenk / Columbia Pictures )