Julie & Julia

Meryl Streep is the consummate actress; she’ll kiss a crab if the part calls for it.

Meryl Streep is the consummate actress; she’ll even kiss a crab!

(Columbia) Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Chris Messina, Linda Emond, Helen Carey, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Jane Lynch, Joan Juliet Buck, Frances Sternhagen, Helen Coxe, Crystal Noelle, George Bartenieff. Directed by Nora Ephron

We all occasionally look for inspiration outside of ourselves. It can come from a person, or a book of poems or a hobby. Sometimes we need something to help us find our own meaning in life.

Julia Child (Streep) is the wife of Paul (Tucci), a career diplomat. In 1949, he gets a plum assignment to the American Embassy in Paris. Her French is limited, but she falls in love with the cuisine of France where there can never be enough butter or cream. She tries to find something to fill her time, taking hat-making lessons but what really inspires her is food, so she enrolls in the prestigious French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. Although the mistress (Buck) is skeptical of the chances of the only woman in a class full of aspiring chefs, she is a natural and quickly becomes a very skilled chef in her own right.

Julie Powell (Adams) works in a cubicle, dealing with the family of victims of 9-11. She and her husband Eric (Messina) have just moved to a loft in Queens above a pizza parlor; she feels removed from her life. She’d once had ambitions of being a writer but hadn’t been able to finish the novel she wanted to write. Stressed out and miserable, she finds solace in cooking, particularly from the recipes of Julia Child. Her husband suggests she cook all the recipes in Child’s landmark “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a single year, a total of 524 recipes in 365 days and then blogging about it. Motivated, she agrees to do it even though initially she wonders if she’s communicating with anybody.

Meanwhile, back in the 50s, Julia has met Simone Beck (Emond) and Louisette Bertholle (Carey) at an embassy party. The two are trying to write a French cookbook for American housewives, without much success. They are having trouble relating to an American audience. They need Julia’s perspective. The three open up a cooking school, although Louisette contributes very little. Beck and Bertholle meet very little enthusiasm from American publishers, and Julia despairs as the project drags on. Only the support of her husband keeps her going.

Julie’s blog doesn’t seem to be betting much attention. The project is becoming more of an obsession, as Julie develops a kinship with the author of the cookbook. She begins to get stressed and when she fails from time to time, she has some spectacular meltdowns. Her single-mindedness has gotten to the point where her normally patient husband has walked out on her after one meltdown too many.

The two stories are told parallel to each other. Ephron weaves them together skillfully as they can be. Part of the problem is that there is a disparity between the performances of the two lead women. Streep is one of the best actresses of her generation, and she’s at the top of her game here. She captures Child’s mannerisms and personality nearly spot-on. Much of the material comes from letters written by Child herself and her husband Paul. They give insight into the couple that no biopic would normally be able to offer.

That’s not to say that Adams’ performance is bad. She’s a fine actress in her own right and she has a role here that is against type – a somewhat neurotic obsessive who has a slight streak of self-indulgence. The problem is that while Powell was an ardent admirer, her story is not nearly as interesting as Child’s. In many ways, Powell is basking in the reflected glow of Child. Adams in many ways relegated to a supporting role to Streep and I suspect she doesn’t mind too much.

Tucci and Messina have thankless tasks as the husbands. The roles of saints are inherently less interesting than those of sinners, and these husbands are definitely saints. Their patience and understanding would do Gandhi proud and while these make excellent traits in real-life husbands, they tend to make on-screen versions look like milksops.

One of the things the movie is successful in doing is portraying the satisfaction of creating a meal from scratch. It is true in our modern American society, meals have become a function more of ease and time as opposed to what they once were, a function of passion and love. We place emphasis on meals that are pre-prepared and easily heated in a microwave oven. We’ve lost the inclination to spend time preparing a meal, even one taken from a recipe. The sense of satisfaction from a well-made meal that is delicious is lost to us.

Vegans may have a difficult time watching this as various meats and fishes are shown in the process of preparation and it isn’t always a pretty picture, particularly a group of lobsters who do not go gently into that good night. French cooking relies heavily on butter and cream, and Julia Child was extremely fond of both. We have become obsessed with healthy eating in this country, which is a bit of a joke. On the one hand, we are perhaps the most obese culture in history, relying on the glories of Big Macs and Whoppers to keep our nation fed. On the other hand, we spend time eating bland, so-called healthy meals that have little soul or passion to them and are meant to be good for us but so very rarely satisfy other needs. Food isn’t merely fuel for the body; it is also something that feeds our souls. Spoken as a man who has battled weight issues his entire life, I might add.

If all you think of food is as a means to keep your body’s engine running then this movie probably doesn’t have a whole lot to say to you. If, on the other hand, food is something to be savored and enjoyed then this is the kind of film you might find inspiration in. Streep’s performance is extraordinary and well-worth seeing on its own merits.

Like any well-cooked meal, Julie & Julia takes time to savor. It’s not a typical summer release in that there are no explosions, no big laughs. Instead, it warms the soul quietly, much in the way a good casserole comforts us. It’s not spectacular, it’s nothing that is going to have fanboys twittering on the internet, but it’s a solid movie about passion – and that’s the spice of life right there.

REASONS TO GO: Once again, Meryl Streep gives an unforgettable performance. You may be inspired to cook a really great meal after seeing this.

REASONS TO STAY: Streep’s performance is so good that she overwhelms the other actors onscreen. Vegans may be put off by the preparing and cooking of meat.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some blue language and some mild sexual situations but nothing the average teenager wouldn’t see or hear on an ordinary school day.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to make the 5’6” Streep approximate the 6’2” Child, camera tricks, sets with lowered counter tops, and shorter actors were employed.

HOME OR THEATER: As much as I like this movie, I think the closer you see it to a kitchen, the better.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

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