Meryl Streep and Amy Adams in Nora Ephron’s Julie and
ALL TRUSSED UP AND SOMEWHERE TO GO
by Pamela A. Lewis
published August 14, 2009
Julie and Julia
now playing nationwide
Any American cook who has learned to poach an egg properly or to deftly whip up a crème bavaroise had better remember to give their propers to Julia Child, doyenne of the kitchen, who
taught clueless housewives the difference between châteaubriand and chou-fleur. Before Julia and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book she co-authored with Simone Beck, American cooking was
a gastronomical wasteland waiting to be freed from a Spam and meatloaf eternity.
Thus the scene in Nora Ephron’s Julie and Julia where Meryl Streep –
delivering another of her air-tight performances as Ms. Child – meets with her editor Judith Jones to settle on a title for her
masterwork underscores how significant this book was in the way of instructing American women how to cook intelligently. And to cook “intelligently” was, by implication, French cooking, a demanding and complicated
art form, as glorious yet impenetrable as the French language, a skill requiring practice, commitment, and mastery.
The film is as much about Julia Child’s education in this exalted universe as it is about her eventual literary
and television triumph (although this latter is only fleetingly touched upon) in it. As
did Ms. Child, Ms. Streep achieves this with audacity, wit, and charm.
By the time young and aspiring writer, Julie Powell, and her husband Eric
arrive in their new apartment in Long Island City, Queens, in 2002, Mastering the Art of French
Cooking has achieved Biblical authority. Like some culinary oracle, questions were put
to “Julia,” as the book came to be known in shorthand, and all received the right answers.
Wanting to find out if this inerrancy is real, in the midst of her dreary office job, Julie sets out to cook every single one of the
over five hundred recipes in Mastering and to write a blog about the experience. It is this blog that gave birth to the memoir that in turn gave Ms. Ephron’s movie its title and the
lesser portion of its narrative.
While Julie and her idol never meet (they ostensibly live in different eras), their lives parallel in
significant (and sometimes comedic) ways. Both have a gnawing need to do something with
their lives; both are married but childless (which, in the case of Ms. Child, is poignantly revealed at least twice in the film) yet
blessed with husbands who only on occasion betray frustration with the doggedness of their wives’ pursuits. Chris Messina offers a relaxed and likable Eric Powell (Julie’s husband), while Stanley Tucci is
note-perfect as Paul Child. Both women must also prove themselves against arrogance and
superiority, as in the case of Julie, who early in the movie is surrounded by college friends who not-so-subtly rub her nose in their
successes; and of Julia confronted by
the withering xenophobia and sexism of the French culinary establishment, as embodied by Madame Brassard, head
of the Cordon Bleu cooking school.
With her height and distinct verbal idiosyncracies, Ms. Child was an easy
target for caricature, such as in the classic Dan Ackroyd sendup on “Saturday Night Live,” where a simple chicken carve ends up with his
Ms. Child bloodying herself and her studio (and which, in a delightful ironic twist, Julie and Eric watch on TV). However, Ms. Streep, without a whiff of parody, completely inhabits her character, showing us the
human being behind the icon, a full-blooded woman who enjoyed food, sex (she likens hot cannelloni to a “stiff cock”), cigarettes, and the
fame her work garnered.
Despite the sweetness and sincerity Ms. Adams and Mr. Messina
bring to their roles, they are decidedly less interesting to watch than their middle-aged counterparts. They lack the burnish of people like the Childs who have amassed a larger collection of years and
experiences. When we stack late 40s and early 50s Paris against 2002 Queens, and a blog
(even the word hits the ear with a thud) concerning a book bearing the words “mastering” and “art,” we don’t need a lot of time to recognize where Ms. Ephron’s sentiments truly lie, ones which lend a
discernible imbalance to the storyline.
Yet, like an underdone crème brûlée that can be rescued with a few
blasts of a
blowtorch (which this reviewer witnessed Ms. Child perform on one of her shows), this film still comes out as a
delectable treat to be enjoyed in a time of choleric tempers, indifferent summer weather, and unrelenting bad news. Both Julie and Julia serve up a can-do spirit that we can all savor and even ask for
pamelalewis @ stageandcinema.com