From the same pen as When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron, come the stories of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the diplomat’s wife who brought French cooking back to America, and Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a frustrated government worker who starts a blog where she records cooking her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s monumental Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Based on Powell’s blog and Child’s memoir, Ephron (who also directs) intertwines these women’s lives, jumping from Child’s revelatory first sole meuniere in Paris, where Streep looks almost inconsolable at her inability to make sufficiently satisfactory moans of delight, to the Queens apartment where Powell and her husband (Chris Messina) live above a pizzeria and Powell cooks away her stress at her job, fielding calls relating to Ground Zero. (Her story is set in 2002.)
Streep – whose comic talents are well-established but often forgotten – raises belly laughs just by incarnating Child, lanky and not that graceful with her oddly-rhythmic high-pitched voice, which bounces up and down off successive syllables, like a hysterical glockenspiel. She manages all the sly glances and fluttering hand-waves of a woman who knows that the French are out to get her yet responds with Yankee bonhomie. Stanley Tucci as her husband Paul is a picture of devotion and support.
Adams, on the other hand, just has to look somewhat fed up at her tedious life and stalled literary career, and occasionally excited when a recipe goes well. It is not her fault that her role is not stretching, and so most of her energy goes into a lovey-doviness with her husband, who is tolerant of her narcissistic quest and grateful for its side effects. She is given, however, the second best lobster scene in film (after Annie Hall).
Given how difficult is to make eating in films realistic, Julie & Julia is pleasingly unvarnished: people talk with their mouths full, stuff their faces, and turn the corners of their mouths up in private delight. Still, two hours is a long time to watch becrumbed lips, and the second half - with added 'drama' - drags.
Perhaps more interesting than the content of their cooking is the fact that Child and Powell are turning inside themselves (even if food can be a source of pleasure to and interaction with others). Child, after World War Two, and Powell, after 9/11, have both had enough of reality: they learn to explore their own interests and talents, both as a way of consuming time and a way of finding fulfilment.
When they spend this much time in the kitchen, they seem to reject the world outside. What that really makes Julie & Julia is not gastroporn, which it could easily have become, but a fight for the self which happens to have some gratuitous baking shots. Perhaps this seems too serious for a film about cooking, but it is much more than that: it is cooking as a window to the soul.