Julie and Julia -- Film Review

You feel hunger pangs all the way through "Julie & Julia." Platters of boeuf bourguignon, sole meuniere, fresh oysters, trussed chickens and calves' livers served with crusty baguettes and desserts of fromage blanc move tantalizingly before your eyes. But there is another hunger: As enjoyable as this foodie movie is, you wish it would take a deeper, more nuanced measure of the women who, in two different eras, star in the movie's kitchens.

Writer-director Nora Ephron tells of two real-life people, newly wed and restless with ill-defined ambitions, and how they discover their true selves in gourmet cooking. They are America's first food star, the late cookbook author and TV personality Julia Child, and an otherwise unknown 30-year-old wife in Queens, N.Y., Julie Powell, who blogged about her attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Child's legendary "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in a single year.

The film is primed to do extremely well with female audiences in many markets, an attraction only enhanced by stars Meryl Streep and Amy Adams.

Ephron, who certainly delights in parallel story lines -- "Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail," "When Harry Met Sally ..." -- has merged two recent memoirs, "My Life in France," which Child wrote with her grandnephew Alex Prud'homme, and "Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously," by Powell.

Probably this merger makes commercial sense: Neither memoir is the stuff of popular moviemaking, though Child's reminiscences of her life-changing experiences in postwar France -- where she fell in love with French culture, cuisine, local markets and her classes at the Cordon Bleu -- might have been worth a try.

Powell's story about her single-minded engagement with Child's cookbook has an almost unpleasant taste of self-absorption. And by sharing her story with Child's, Ephron throws the wrong emphasis on Child's delightful memoir of the early years in her ideal marriage to Paul Child.

True, the movie shows that Paul -- played with modest self-effacement by Stanley Tucci against Streep's larger-than-life Julia -- encourages his beloved wife's every experiment in the kitchen and the writing of her seminal book. But by contrasting that memoir with Powell's, the movie somewhat distorts the life the Childs share as they revel in their love for la belle France and each other.

Streep delivers yet another uncanny impersonation, getting every shade of the famously hearty voice and extravagant, life-loving personality that was Julia. The evocation of late-'40s Paris encourages a terrific sense of nostalgia, whether one was alive or even in France then or not. After "Julie & Julia," you feel like you were.

The details of the couple's life and their meals, Julia's Kismet-like meeting with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she wrote her first cookbook, and all mood swings as publishers reject -- and Knopf enthusiastically accepts -- the monumental work fill the screen with joie de vivre.

Adams' Julie is more of a lost soul. She lives with a "saint," as she often calls her husband, Eric (Chris Messina), in an iffy apartment above a pizza parlor. She works as a secretary in a federal government office overlooking the World Trade Center crater and laments that she has never finished anything in her life. Thus her determination to complete the cookbook marathon.

She suffers for her blog. She drags herself to that cramped kitchen whether sick or well. She refuses to quit because it has become her identity. Without the "Julie/Julia Project," she'd revert to a frustrated wife with a husband, dead-end job and another unfinished project. No joie de vivre here.

Possibly the Powell sequences might have worked better as a framing device. Sharing equal time with Julia's discovery of la cuisine bourgeoisie, it turns the banquet that was Julia's French experiences into short-order dishes. And even in the Julia sequences, Ephron dwells far too long on the conflicts among the cookbook's three authors.

Consequently, the movie misses the point of "My Life in France." That country liberated Julia, a 6-foot-2 woman -- tall girls "don't fit it," her equally tall sister remarks -- from a conservative Republican household in Pasadena. France released her from middle-class values and its indifferent attitude toward food. She in turn introduced the modern American woman to the glories of cooking and how she could express artistry in her kitchen.

So "Julie & Julia" is a mixed blessing. You enjoy vicariously many dishes, sample the good life in France and get treated to another Streep marvel. Stephen Goldblatt's lush cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's whimsical score make the film's two worlds inviting. Both female protagonists even enjoy a final triumph, but one indulges far too much in Bridget Jones-like self-obsession.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 7 (Columbia)
Rated PG-13, 124 minutes
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