Julie & Julia
Chef’s delight: ‘Julie & Julia’ a delicious tale of two women and two eras
“Julie & Julia’’ is the easiest thing Nora Ephron has ever done with a movie. There’s not much to argue with. Half the film is spent with Meryl Streep as Julia Child in France in 1949. Half is spent 50 years later with Amy Adams as Julie Powell, a Texan living in Queens, who devotes a year (and a blog) to exploring the recipes from the tome Child spent a decade completing, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.’’
Ephron has adapted two memoirs: Child’s “My Life in France’’ and Powell’s “Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.’’ And the movie she’s built out of them is more than a tale of two women (although it is certainly that). It’s a tale of two different ages for women. The movie is lighter than that sounds. Ephron doesn’t make dissertations. She makes “You’ve Got Mail.’’
So the movie glides, for more than an hour, like butter in a hot skillet. But it doesn’t glide witlessly. We jump back and forth between France, where Child is the 36-year-old wife of Paul Child (Stanley Tucci), a Foreign Service officer, and New York, where Powell lives in a cute apartment above a pizzeria with her husband, Eric (Chris Messina).
The movie begins with neither woman really knowing what to do with herself. Child takes French classes, learns to play bridge, tries hat making. None of it suits her. She winds up trying to enroll in the Cordon Bleu culinary school, over the objections of an imperious headmistress who, once Child is accepted, wishes her nothing but ill. These scenes of this giant, vaguely slouchy American woman (Child stood 6 foot 2) towering over tiny, meticulous men at a counter are a riot. One of her goals is to master the art of the minced onion. She sets her knife to dozens, which gives Tucci an opportunity to do some tickling pinpoint slapstick upon seeing and presumably smelling the eye-watering aroma that a pitcher’s mound of chopped onions produces.
This is blissful moviemaking. Much of the pleasure we have in watching it comes from seeing Tucci and, obviously, Streep connect. But it’s also the effortlessness Ephron reveals in bringing it all together. There could have been something cartoonish about Streep, who usually appears to be standing on a box to approximate Child’s height. But beneath each of these scenes, between Streep and Tucci, and Streep and the women playing her French coauthors of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ (Linda Emond and Helen Carrey) and her sister (Jane Lynch), between Streep and the vegetables playing the food, is a deep, abiding joy. It’s not just the onions that bring a tear to the eye.
The image of Streep’s china-plate face topped with Child’s curled red hair is automatically amusing. But she sings in Child’s congested falsetto with an uncanny blend of phlegm and melody. It’s Child in the key of Streep. (“What could this mean?’’ she intones, poring over an entry in a Larousse dictionary.) Ephron expresses a loud vote of confidence in her star’s interpretation when she sits the Powells down on the sofa to laugh at Dan Aykroyd’s “Saturday Night Live’’ version of Child. The director is showing us the difference between inspired sketch comedy and actorly soul.
People who knew or worshiped Child will question some of the movie’s details. Did she and Paul, for instance, really have this much sex? Was he this romantic? (“Where’s my big sprig?’’ Paul says to his wife.) But that misses the larger point of these scenes. When in an American movie do regular people have that much sex? Plus - and this is important - Stanley Tucci is very sexy.
Ephron understands this marriage, this woman, her friendships, the hassles not only of finishing a massive book but getting it published. Ephron doesn’t seem to find the same fulfillment in her movie’s modern New Yorker. Powell’s decision to start a blog stems from frustration with her job at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, taking calls from people waiting for money after 9/11. She’s not the go-getter her friends are. There’s a funny restaurant scene between Powell and some girlfriends whom she dislikes seeing (“Ritual cobb salad. Dreading. Dreading. Dreading’’). She’s a dolphin. The girlfriends are sharks. One of them writes a pitying profile of her for New York magazine.
I imagine part of Ephron’s attraction to Powell as a character is that she’s as whimsically old-fashioned in some ways as Ephron’s other heroines. Powell cooks from Child’s books in pearls, for one thing. The spiky, pouty, altogether marvelous Mary Lynn Rajskub plays Powell’s best friend, but you’d be forgiven for wondering whether her true cosmic sisters are any of the women Meg Ryan has played in Ephron’s other movies. There is as much tenderness and truth about friendship in this half of the movie as there is the other. But the joy of cooking is replaced here by the stress of it. Killing a lobster, boning a duck: We’re too wimpy for that.
A few people have worried that Adams’s half of the movie isn’t as lively or as brightly lit as Streep’s (it isn’t) - or that Adams isn’t Streep. But it isn’t that the Adams half suffers from Adams not being Streep. It’s that Julie suffers (as all American cooks do) from not being Julia. And this is why the Powell parts of the film work. It’s Ephron’s way of coming to terms with a real consequence of post-feminism. Powell is a woman in a job she hates who finds a source of liberation doing something certain liberated women still see as oppressive housework.
She turns to Child’s book partly as therapy, partly as anthropology. Cooking used to be about cooking, but in so many ways it’s became about politics, and the politics loosely start to take their toll on Powell’s marriage. Powell’s loving husband, having been trained to accept her as a professional equal, now has to learn to take his wife’s kitchen work seriously. Paul Child is just as fully evolved, but free of any angst over his wife’s success. He’s rooting for her.
Ephron works best when telling tandem stories. The paramours-to-be in “When Harry Met Sally. . .,’’ “Sleepless in Seattle,’’ and “You’ve Got Mail’’ talked and typed their way into idealized romances (gallingly so, in the case of “You’ve Got Mail’’). This time the two halves don’t meet physically or philosophically. Powell’s project becomes a media sensation, but rumor has it that Child finds it frivolous and doesn’t approve (she didn’t). So this might be the first of Ephron’s romantic duplexes to culminate in heartbreak. It also might be the first that manages to comment on itself. The unbearable lightness of some of Ephron’s moviemaking finally meets the sting of her essays. Ephron has been guilty of frivolity, too. But in “Julie & Julia,’’ she doesn’t merely concede that food is life. She celebrates it.